Thursday, February 23, 2006

Thou Shalt Not Covet.

Now, I figure that since they didn't have grand pianos when that command came down the first time, grand pianos should be exempt. Doesn't that seem reasonable to you? It does to me.

I own a Yamaha upright that I purchased new when I started teaching full-time. It has an oak finish, keeps its tune nicely, and it has been exactly what I needed for my private use and my years of teaching. It retailed somewhere in the neighborhood of $4,000 in 1996, and since I worked at the music store I bought it from, that was knocked down to $2,400. It was the nicest instrument I could afford, and even that was stretching it a bit. It has served me well, and I have never regretted the purchase.

However, as anyone who has the faintest appreciation for cars can tell you, the fact that you like your reliable Honda does not keep you from getting whiplash watching a Shelby Cobra drive by, or a perfectly maintained '57 Chevy, or one of those Corvettes -- yeah, you know the ones I mean. In the much smaller world of people who appreciate pianos, it works a lot the same way, and with surprisingly similar price tags.

I was in Costco the other day in pursuit of chicken, and maybe some of that nice crab dip or some chocolate-covered almonds if they had them in quantities under ten pounds, and I wheeled around a corner to come cart-to-keyboard with a grand piano. Not exactly what you expect to find between the children's videos and the mayonnaise, you know?

It turned out to be a special sales event hosted by an area piano dealership, and (as always seems to be the case at these things) the featured instrument was one of those irritating monstrosities that plays itself and has a recorded backup band. It's great if you want Liberace's ghost in your living room, but otherwise it's a little creepy. Regardless, the incessant noise was an excellent deterrent to playing the other pianos, just in case you missed the polite little sign balanced over the Middle C on each keyboard. I wouldn't have, but it still kind of bugged me on principle that I couldn't. I wandered down the aisle, seeing if anything caught my eye, only looking with half my attention.

And then, there it was. A 7-foot grand, black with a subtle, soft finish, lid up, bench positioned just so, and Bosendorfer stamped across the front. Who? Oh, I'll tell you. There aren't many of them out there, and they're in a class by themselves. They're best known for their concert grand that has 92 keys instead of 88, adding four extra bass notes that (due to the quality of the piano) actually sound like notes rather than very expensive growls. I had never actually seen one. I had also never seen a piano that had been marked down to $60,000. From $90,000. Really. I'm completely serious, and I suspect the piano dealership was too.

So, can you blame me for changing my mind about the silliness of a piano show in the middle of Costco? I had to play this thing. It was not optional. I had to play it. Unfortunately, the salesman was in full Sell-Things Mode, and he had an interested audience. Since it said RIGHT THERE not to play without asking, and the electronic horror had moved onto "White Christmas", I just didn't have what it took to sit down and start playing. But I also couldn't bring myself to interrupt a potential sale just to ask if I could play a piano that I, in my jeans and T-shirt and scuffed tennis shoes, was clearly not planning to buy.

I waited. And waited. I walked away. I came back. (A Bosendorfer! I have to!) I smiled nicely at the person being sold to. I waited. I walked away again. I came back again. (But it's a Bosendorfer!) Finally, finally, he was free, I asked, he said yes, I sat down, and then my mind went blank. All those years of classical training, GONE. So I picked up the jazzy line the techno-thing had been playing, got into a groove with it, and oh my ... I was in love. People were probably listening. I have no idea. There were no people, there was no Costco, just the perfect action of the keys and the pure trebles and the rich middle tones and the heartbreaking clarity of the bass (I knew it was coming, but you're never really ready for it) and I accelerated that baby up to sixty in no time flat.

I had to stop before I got drool on the keyboard. I came back to earth, smiled ruefully at the salesman, patted it good-bye, and paid for my chicken and went home. I thought my poor faithful little piano would look small and worn and sad when I saw it, but instead it beckoned to me. The few minutes of bliss on that beautiful work of art had reminded me, paradoxically, of why I do this -- it's not the instrument. It's the music. So I played, Bach preludes and Schubert impromptus and a little bit of blues, all pouring out of my soul into my fingers and back into my soul again.

I don't need to covet. I have all I need in my heart, my hands, and my stack of beloved and battered music. I have all I need.

This was originally posted on September 22, 2005.


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