This weekend marks the anniversary of the delivery of my first acoustic piano. Although this was the most costly purchase I’ve made of anything not having floors and a furnace, I haven’t the slightest buyer’s remorse. In fact, I’m happier with the piano now than I was when I bought it last year, and my delight in playing it only grows with time.
My piano quest was a lot like others that have been described on these pages. I was a late-blooming string player (double bass) as an adolescent (a long time ago), and I’ve played the bass in some pretty decent orchestras of serious amateurs and semi-pros. I had no experience at all, though, on keyboard instruments.
A couple of years ago I was seriously ill, and the protracted course of treatment required me to stop playing bass altogether for six months. While recuperating, and with this lesson that I wouldn’t be around forever, I asked myself whether my musical yearnings were being completely satisfied by the bass. They weren’t.
Don’t get me wrong – playing in a good symphony orchestra, or in the pit orchestra for a decent opera company, is plenty rewarding. But for me, the bass (in classical music, anyway) is a hard instrument to play well, and even playing it well has limitations. The bass gets few melodies and fewer solos. I began to feel as if I were always shoveling coal in the orchestral boiler room, when I really wanted to take at least an occasional turn on the bridge.
While I was in treatment, I saw a glowing review of Perri Knize’s “Grand Obsession,” and I bought and devoured the book. Perri persuaded me that, for a music lover, it’s never too late to take up a new instrument. And I saw in the piano what so many of you have seen: A challenging and rewarding instrument, a literature that is incredibly rich from all periods and at all skill levels, and a community of like-minded souls with whom to share the journey and the passion.
In October of 2011 I acquired an AvantGrand N2. I had read about the instrument and was intrigued by some accounts and reviews. For my first few months of lessons, the AG was my piano, and it helped me get off to a good start. All digital instruments have limitations, but some have admirable strengths, and I’m a fan of the AG and the direction Yamaha and others are taking us with hybrid piano technology. I look forward to more progress.
That said, as I got deeper into lessons, I realized that the serious string player in me wasn’t going to be satisfied with a synthetic sound on my principal piano. I should have realized that while reading Perri’s book, but I didn’t fully appreciate that fact for some time.
After a couple of months I started looking at acoustics, armed with my copy of “The Piano Buyer” and informed by a lot I had read on PianoWorld.
I realized a couple of important things early in my quest. First, as someone who had had to develop a good ear for tone quality in my other musical life, I could easily hear qualitative differences between different pianos, and I liked some a lot more than I liked others. Not only that, and even though I was a novice pianist, I could perceive differences in piano actions, and I liked some a lot better than others.
The other important thing I realized was that the piano business is something of a world unto itself, and I knew nothing about how business is done in that world.
Since I was clearly drawn to higher-end pianos that cost a fair amount, I did what I do in my professional life when confronted with material questions that I can’t answer myself: I hired an expert. Steve Cohen, who posts frequently on PianoWorld, kindly agreed to give me advice about aspects of acquiring a piano, and the modest amount he charged me was the best investment I ever made – his help was invaluable and more than paid for itself. Bluntly stated, without Steve I could never have gotten the piano I really wanted.
Still, it was entirely up to me to survey the field and decide what instrument I wanted.
I can’t claim I played every type of good piano – my time was limited, and a few of the top makers don’t have much of a presence in my area. I played quite a few, though, and based on what my fingers and ears told me, I found three that really appealed.
One dealer in my area sells Faziolis, and they make a remarkable line of pianos. I found both the tone and the action impeccable.
I had to travel to Sam Bennett’s wonderful store in Atlanta to try a Grotrian, and I liked the model on his floor as much as I liked the Fazioli. It was an altogether amazing instrument, and I can see why Perri loves hers so much.
Closer to home, I also played through the whole inventory at PianoCraft in Gaithersburg MD, and that’s where the “thunderbolt” hit me. One of the last instruments I played on my visit was a Steingraeber C-212, and the combination of sound quality and keyboard feel appealed to me like nothing else I had played.
Shaun Tirrell, who worked with me at PianoCraft, is a superlative concert pianist, and while I could tell from my own plinking that this was a great instrument, hearing Shaun play it at a level I’ll never approach also gave me a sense of the instrument’s quality and potential.
The piano was by no means inexpensive, but Shaun and PianoCraft worked very hard to make the sale possible, for which I am very grateful. To make a long story short, we found a way.
So how does the piano sound? Someday I’ll post a recording of my modest student playing, but in the meantime here’s a video of my piano being played by someone who really knows how to play it, Shaun Tirrell:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EUAy-mDIozs
I play this instrument at least an hour or two every day I’m in town – sometimes longer – and I’ve found a very good teacher who is helping me progress, along with a local group of amateur musicians who welcomed me into their monthly “works in progress” musical salon, where we play for each other.
Piano doesn’t come easily to my 60-year-old brain, and if nothing else, it’s very good for my humility. I have an instrument that’s much better than I’ll ever deserve, but it inspires me to play seriously every day. I’ll never regret the acquisition.