Some water, a candle, a hardcover book and an old piano

I grew up in a house with a piano. This was not because my parents were musical; they were not. In my family music skipped a generation and descended directly from my grandmother to me (guitar) and my sister (piano). My sister’s early experiences with grandma’s baby grand led to a Yamaha upright appearing in our living room. Alas, I never took lessons, but I’ve always loved the full, rich, transcendent sound of the piano. When my sister left home and took the piano with her, I asked for one of my own and got an electric organ. It was not the same, not even close, and it did little more than gather dust.

As soon as I got an apartment big enough I started casting about for a piano that needed a home. I eventually became the proud babysitter of a nice old Young Chang belonging to a wandering friend. I have yet to make much headway in learning to play it—a couple of Bach minuets are as far as I’ve gotten—but that’s OK. As David Dubal in “Let’s tickle the ivories” says, its the journey that matters.

Almost everyone is musical. Music is an actual bodily need. Another saying goes “If something is worth doing, it is worth doing well,” but I disagree. Like Chesterton, I feel that if something is worth doing, it is worth doing even badly. Playing the piano is not something to be graded. Adults should take it up the moment they feel the need to play music. As a matter of course, children should be given lessons without pressure. Playing the piano should be an act without material value. It must be a road of discovery, a trackless territory, and never a means of showing off. The piano won’t serve the ego’s craving for recognition.

According to that Dubal, the piano’s popularity was at its zenith when my grandmother was growing up, but collapsed along with the stock market a generation later. But what of all those old pianos? Some of them end up at Fournitures Generales Pour le Piano, a tiny Paris shop stuffed to the rafters with old piano parts that can no longer be had from the manufacturers. The only way to get them is to take them from other pianos, which owner Marc Manceaux likens to organ donation. One sacrificed piano can keep many others alive. His business is in decline, but Manceaux says that as long as he has some water, a candle, a hardcover book and an old piano, he will continue to live. The short film La Mer de Pianos, below, is a beautiful tribute to Manceaux and to all who love pianos.

Before I got to practice some scales I’ll leave you with Dubal’s call for a global piano revolution:

The piano is a shrine to the human spirit, an instrument so perfect that it has permeated the lives of the great composers. In its literature are compositions for every level of attainment. It is said that in China thirty million people study the piano. That’s quite a good start. Let’s go country by country. I actually believe that playing the piano may save the world. But forget about the world and save yourself.

via The Rolltop Manifesto and The Guardian

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8 comments on “Some water, a candle, a hardcover book and an old piano

  1. Seesaw says:

    Even today I am sorry I did not finish music school & learn to play piano. My grandparents had it & it was so nice when grandfather or father sat down to play! Alas, later the piano was sold and since then all I can do is listen to piano music.

  2. twilark says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with you and Chesterton. The journey into music should be an adventure and a personal delight. There was a piano in our house. I had lessons but the approach was grades. I was too young and preferred to pick out tunes. I then fell for the violin and followed that through in spite of the grades. I love the sound of piano music.

    • Sylvia says:

      Perhaps the violin is more practical for our modern mobile lifestyles! But there is definitely something special about the piano…

  3. Stefanie says:

    I so very much wanted to learn how to play the piano when I was a kid. I begged and begged and my parents refused saying if I wanted to play an insturment I could learn to play my dad’s old trumpet. I took a piano class in college and loved it though learning with a group of 15 other people is not the way to go and because I had nowhere to practice besides on campus it just didn’t work out. So I have given up on learning it. Now, I’ve decided that it would be fun to learn how to play fiddle and my husband says he’d like to learn banjo. Perhaps when we retire or win the lottery and find ourselves with lots of time.

    • Sylvia says:

      I was leafing through my grandmother’s memoir and she mentions briefly that one of her pleasures in retirement (besides being a world traveller!) is having the time to take up the piano seriously again. So your dream of learning an instrument after you retire is perhaps not as remote as it seems right now. 🙂

  4. Gavin says:

    Thank you so much for this. I regret giving up piano lessons at the age of ten because my teacher refused to let me trying playing by ear. Like your Grandmother and Stephanie I’d love to take it up again when I retire.

    • Sylvia says:

      That’s a shame. I suppose one can’t get very far in classical music without sight-reading but for popular/folk/jazz music it’s not really necessary. There are plenty of successful musicians who can’t read a note.

      I think if I was a music teacher I’d be marketing my services to the over-65 crowd! 😀

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