The piano

Bill-newby L. G. William Chapman, B.A., LL.B.
I have always held it to be an unalterable truth that every home should have both books and a piano.  Admittedly the dictum is somewhat an affectation as it is more a drawing room quip than a fact. Besides, while I have always maintained a small library of books, I privately remind myself that there are so many of note that I haven’t read that it seems almost artificial to press the point.  The piano on the other hand is a more sustainable pretension for, although I cannot claim to be a highly accomplished player, yet I am hopelessly dedicated to the piano as an instrument of personal expression. I began playing the piano at the age of ten years.  It is regrettable that my acceleration was such that I abandoned formal study of the piano when I succeeded to Grade VIII Toronto Conservatory at the age of fourteen years.  The combination of my ear for the piano and my native adaptation to the instrument afforded me the mistaken privilege of letting go the lessons.  Nonetheless for the next 50 years I continued to divert myself on the piano though unquestionably with diminishing returns. As my circumstances allowed I graduated from a Mason & Risch upright piano (our family piano appropriated by me when I got my first home in Almonte) to a seventy year old Heintzman (bought by me from the estate of the late Mrs. Annie Johnson widow of Dr. Johnson in Carleton Place) and finally to a new Steinway L-Grand. The Steinway was a bit of a deceit because the quality of my playing hardly merited its unsurpassed performance. But on a cloudy day with which to match my sometimes gloomy sympathies and given enough caffeine to stimulate my dexterity with the arpeggios I could rattle off some tolerably inoffensive pieces.  When however we recently underwent the cataclysmic reduction of our four-bedroom two-storey house to a small apartment the Steinway – or any piano for that matter – was off the order table. No longer having a piano I occasionally satisfied myself by playing the pianos of my friends or of my sister (who had since regained the family Mason & Risch now hopelessly neglected and out of tune).  The orphaned experience harkened back to my days as a student when I was accustomed to discover the whereabouts of the University grand pianos.  The point is this:  I never allowed myself to go long before uncovering a piano.  In my days as an articled law clerk on Sparks Street, for example, I would insinuate myself into the ballroom at the Château Laurier Hotel for like purpose (once unwittingly performing for the wife of renowned photographer Yousuf Karsh who then lived in the Hotel). I omitted to mention that the project of downsizing to an apartment was contemporaneous with my retirement from the practice of law.  As such the undertaking was more than a mere relocation; it was a paramount readjustment.  Everything about the move was calculated to step away from the past and begin anew.  And I have to say that the effort was not unrewarded. Indeed as I have since discovered, the undertaking has been accomplished to such perfection as to prohibit any accommodation of the past.  In addition to abandoning whatever doesn’t go in the dishwasher we have let go of anything for which there is no foreseeable promise (a surgical choice which at times demanded some frank admission).  Among the discarded elements of my life was my erstwhile affection for the piano, a hobby which unquestionably had declined to a distinctly forgettable level or at the very least was highly repetitive.  Knowing this I sought to replace the creative feature of the hobby by strengthening my only other hobby of writing (though that too came under some close and critical observation). As the commotion of the move began to subside I found myself imperceptibly revisiting the subject of the piano though this time with a variation.  Instead of contemplating a pianoforte I canvassed information about electronic keyboards.  What little I knew of the subject did not recommend it to me.  Only a year ago I had stumbled upon an electronic keyboard while visiting people in Montepulciano (the lady of the household was bent upon learning to play the piano).  As usual I engineered my way into playing it though frankly without great satisfaction.  The device was no match for a percussive piano.  In spite of this unmoving experience I persisted in my researches by trolling the internet for further information.  By coincidence I unearthed a local emporium which stocked the latest models of the contraptions. I shall not try my dear reader’s patience by becoming the equivalent of a travel writer for the music industry. Suffice it to say that after an examination of a number of these instruments I came away more than a little impressed.  As in all matters of commerce there is a direct correlation between price and quality.  So often people who are “thinking” about a piano (usually for their children) make the error of starting with an affordable model which of course flies in the face of the entire point of a piano; namely, the sound quality.  The same applies to the electronic keyboards; some are little more than gimmicky toys; others are marvels of technology.  My interest in the device was pointedly heightened by the knowledge that I could connect to it using a headset (a feature I considered a positive advantage in an apartment).  In addition the keyboard was transportable (it came with a collapsible table and bench and a traveling case). You would think that would be the end of the matter; that is, that all considered, the electronic keyboard was a good and viable choice.  But not so fast!  As reluctant as I am to say so, the overriding question was where to put it?  As I mentioned earlier the transition from the house to the apartment was accomplished with enormous refinement.  In summary the furnishings we had retained were so judiciously chosen and placed that there was positively no room for anything else.  A random paper clip would have been conspicuous!  It naturally offended my finer sensibilities that the elevated subject of artistry (a notion I now liberally attributed to my fading piano talent) should be subjected to the indecorous competition of household furnishings.  Yet even a casual glance about the apartment reinforced my undiluted pleasure in the place before having considered the encroachment of an electronic keyboard (which hardly qualified as mahogany cabinetry).  If this were the sole source of contention the debate may have resolved itself without prolonged argument.  Something might have been pushed aside to billet the device.  However a further and as yet unresolved point was more prickly.  The issue remained whether the time had passed to contemplate even playing the piano, electronic or otherwise. One often hears of those who, upon retirement, placate their burgeoning sense of worthlessness by taking up some fairly weighty matter, things like getting a college degree or learning to paint or flying a plane.  Cajoled by the supreme reasonableness of the electronic keyboard I had reasoned that I would at last revisit the subject of learning to read music, an industry I had succeeded in convincing myself I could assert even in the middle of the night with the aid of my headphones (which the merchant charitably advised he would “throw in” with the deal).  Yet as innocent as the  ambition was, there lingered a possibility that it was all misguided.  One has to confront some hard facts in these matters.  Perhaps it was time to retire with my book and my bottle instead.