To Buy a Piano: A Cherry Steinway’s Soul

To Buy a Piano: A Cherry Steinway’s Soul

I stepped into the foyer of an SoHo apartment in Manhattan. On the opposite wall hung an abstract oil painting of a nude, her body contorted and sectioned. At the smell of alcohol lingering in the air, a tiny alarm bell pealed deep within me.

Jonathan, thin and pale, led me into his living room. For this Sunday afternoon in early April, I had made an appointment with Jonathan to inspect his used cherry Steinway, advertised for sale on Craig’s list.

The instrument stood next to a large bay window, a pleasing spot, but risky for the piano given windows’ volatile temperature extremes. In the thin layer of dust coating the rich cherry cabinet, my finger traced a clear swath. I had decided that to buy a piano would be straightforward, largely an analytical process of ranking the alternatives on balance, sound, and action.

“Why are you selling?” I asked Jonathan.

From an end table, he picked up a glass brimming with red wine.  “I always wanted to play. I bought it when I started piano lessons, but it turned out to be more difficult than I had expected.”  He took a long sip of wine, placed the glass back on the end table with an uncertain motion, and wavered.

I could understand his desire to play the piano. I still felt consumed by that engine of need even though I practiced all the time. Enrolling in adult piano lessons and reclaiming my old Debussy, Grieg, and Chopin classical piano music had ushered in for me a salubrious change of life.  Yet I wondered whether the fact that Jonathan seemed lightly inebriated at 1pm in the afternoon had some connection with his inability to learn how to play the piano.

I played octaves up the keyboard, listening for balance. I ran through the Chopin Nocturne in E-flat major to gauge the sound. I concentrated on the key’s tension to assess the action. Or at least I told myself that was what I was doing.

I already had decided that I could not buy this Steinway piano. I did not even want to have a technician check it out.   The cherry grand was associated in my mind with the morose figure of Jonathan, who in turn was too much of a reminder of the many glasses of red wine my father had downed during my childhood.  When drunk, my father particularly seemed to abhor the sound of my practice.

In the foyer, I shook Jonathan’s hand. “It’s lovely, but I’m afraid it’s not the one for me,” I said. I glanced at the abstract of the nude. Reclaiming the piano as an adult had helped relieve the twists in my body, the old contortions held over from growing up in an alcoholic family. From this point forward, in my mission to buy a piano, I decided that equal in importance to the piano’s action, balance, and sound, would be its soul.

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