The Piano Match


In my life I have bought two pianos. With my virgin purchase, I acquiesced to an arranged marriage of sorts, and ended up with a piano that I liked but did not adore. Five years later, fate presented me with a second chance to seek my true piano match. My first piano-shopping experience began not long after my 40th birthday, when my husband, David, enrolled himself and our preschooler, Cal, in father-and-son beginner piano lessons. David wanted to buy an upright; I suggested that we start with an economical electronic keyboard.

“A keyboard doesn’t sound right,” David said.

“What about the practice rooms?” David and Cal took lessons at the local university.

David shook his head. “That’s too far. It will never happen.”

As a teenager, I had studied concert works by Bach, Debussy, and Grieg, yet at age 16, I had quit. Now busy at my marketing-director job, I worried that I did not have the energy to shop for a piano. Nor was I certain that I wanted a piano back in my life. At David’s insistence, we trekked through a piano warehouse store with Cal and our toddler, Mena, but I nixed the economical starter model David had selected, on account of its paltry sound. I surfed websites of other piano stores in the New York City area, consulted the train timetable, but neglected to visit. I placed in my Amazon shopping cart The Piano Book, by Larry Fine, but failed to press the “Place your order” button. Desperate to practice, my patient husband bought a Casio keyboard.

Months after our first visit, I returned to the piano warehouse store, where a salesperson presented a barely used, five-year-old stripling of a piano, a Yamaha professional upright. The technician I hired to inspect the piano pronounced its condition excellent. He whistled when I told him the price. “That’s a good deal.”

Yet the Yamaha’s tone was crisp on the edges, too bright for my tastes. I felt as if I were a single woman in my 20s who had met, at a party, a man whose Adam’s apple bobbed when he swallowed, a trait that my friends deemed harmless but that I found annoying. But while the Yamaha had not seduced me, I wanted the shopping ordeal over. I signed the contract.

Once the piano took up residence in our living room, I surprised myself by practicing for an hour every day. In the fall, I enrolled in piano lessons with Stephen Wu, a local concert pianist 15 years my junior. Over the following four years, as I learned works by Beethoven, Chopin, and Schumann, I never did become as infatuated with the Yamaha as I was with the music I studied. Yet, as in any arranged marriage that the bride wants to succeed, I accommodated, reveling in the music despite my instrument’s limitations.

After my fourth anniversary of studying with Stephen, I was accepted by a Manhattan piano society of performing amateurs. The director asked me to play a Chopin Nocturne and Debussy’s Reverie in the society’s winter concert. The piano in the concert hall was a magnificent Steinway concert grand.

Still relatively green in my studies, I found it difficult to switch from my upright to a grand. Used to the upright’s action, I pulsed soft pianissimo notes so lightly that no sound came out of the grand. To prepare for the concert, I practiced at my neighbor’s house (miraculously, she owns a Hamburg Steinway) and at Stephen’s studio. The performance went well, but I felt unnerved at the prospect of bumming grand-piano time whenever I planned to perform.

“I’d like to buy a piano,” I told David.

“You already have one.”

“No, a grand piano. It’s practically a different instrument from an upright. Stephen says a grand will take my technique to the next level.”

A film of stress passed over my husband’s eyes. “How much is this going to cost?”

New grand pianos start at $6,000 but can easily range to ten times that, depending on the size, materials, and craftsmanship. “A lot … ?”

“Maybe you can buy a used piano.”

Now I assumed the mantle of enthusiastic piano shopper, while David donned the cloak of recalcitrant objector. At least he hadn’t boomeranged on me one of my old lines and suggested I use the university’s practice rooms.

This time, I decided, I would marshal all possible resources in my search for a piano. I restored The Piano Book to my shopping cart, pressed the “Place your order” button with a flourish, and read the book cover to cover, underlining key passages with a purple pen. I spoke at length with other serious amateur pianists about their experiences in finding their grand pianos.

I anticipated that the vast majority of pianos I would play in amateur concerts would be Steinways. Still wavering on my performance legs, I felt more secure at the prospect of practicing on a Steinway at home, then seamlessly transitioning to the same brand in concert. I didn’t see how I could rationalize the cost of a Steinway, yet I knew this Adonis would be the one against which I would compare all others.

At the Steinway store, the salesman, John Weis, unveiled a video player with DVDs for Cal and Mena to watch at low volume while I sampled pianos. An hour later, I had run through my repertoire on grands ranging in length from midsize to over 7′. One Model A, with a lucid treble and sonorous bass, entranced me. I pictured the brawny A, 6′ 2″ long and Steinway’s third-largest make, crammed into the front room of my house, which doubled as my home office.

“I bet I know which piano you liked,” John said. “It was this A here.”

“How could you tell?”

“I listen for how a person’s playing changes with each piano. Your music sounded particularly good on this A.”

Yet even accounting for the discounted price—the piano had spent some time in a model home—the price was stratospheric, more expensive than many luxury German automobiles. “It’s a lot more than I can spend.”

I decided to take David’s advice and shop for a used piano. On a cloudy Sunday in March, I visited an apartment in Manhattan to try a used Steinway cherry grand advertised for sale on Craigslist. The piano, russet and sleek, reclined in the alcove of a bay window. In the apartment’s air I could detect the sweetly antiseptic smell of alcohol, an all too familiar scent from my childhood with my father.

“Why are you selling?” I asked the owner.

“I always wanted to play.” He picked up a glass brimming with red wine. “But the piano turned out to be more difficult than I expected.”

On the cherry grand, I ran through Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat major. The action’s tension felt just right, neither too flimsy nor stiff, and the tone was mellow and sweet. But I could not buy this piano. Already, I associated it with the morose figure of the owner, who in turn reminded me of my father’s struggle with drinking. This piano’s personality beguiled me, but its past was tainted.

A month later, with David in attendance, I rang the bell of a Morningside Heights apartment in northern Manhattan, with the hope that the piano inside, a 1925 Steinway, would be the one. The owner, Nikolaos Laaris, was a Greek concert pianist looking to move back to Europe. “Incapable of making an ugly sound,” the music critic of the London Times had declared in a review of Laaris I had discovered online a few days before. When Nikolaos demonstrated the piano with scales and arpeggios, the sound was rich.

No doubt sensing my intimidation at playing in front of a concert pianist, David asked Nikolaos about Greek cuisine. As they conferred in the kitchenette, I took advantage of their absence by playing Debussy’s Reverie. Yet when I experimented with the reprise of the melody, which should sparkle in the high octaves, my fingers felt glutinous.

“It’s the action,” Nikolaos said. “It’s a very stiff one.”

I glanced across the open lid, at the crisscrossing strings, with regret. To learn a range of technique, I needed a responsive action.

Visiting people’s homes to try their pianos secretly interested me because their relationships with their pianos revealed a deep side of themselves. Yet at my rate of one piano inspection every two months, squeezed in between work and family responsibilities, the process might take years. I did not have time to shop for a used grand.

“I tried the used route, but I’m going new,” I said to David at dinner that night. His only response was to drop his head into his hands. The thought crossed my mind that on one level I was keeping my husband apprised of a large household purchase, yet in an indirect way, I also was giving him updates on my journey to find a lover.

At a store that sold nearly every brand except Steinway, I played grand pianos of all makes and sizes, including a pensive Schimmel whose tone was so dark it brooded; a nimble Kawai whose action included innovative plastic parts; a complacent Baldwin in an old-fashioned walnut color; and an industrious Yamaha, its sound in the upper registries like bells, but its tone, not unlike its upright cousin in my home, too bright and anxious. For the fun of it, I even tried an aristocratic Bösendorfer well beyond my price range. I admired its shimmering, almost echoing tone and the solid spruce rim.

“I think, dollar for dollar, the Kawai is your best value,” the salesman said.

With the price tag reading less than $20,000, I agreed. While I liked the Kawai’s singing tone, the action felt too flexible for me, as if the keys might slip under my fingers. And none of the pianos had a sound that matched the incomparable Steinway A.

On a crisp fall day, Stephen Wu and I arrived at the Steinway store, intent on finding my piano match. John Weis had brought in a number of Model Ms for a special store event. At 5′ 7″, the M is Steinway’s midsize piano, two sizes down from the A that had twinged my heart. In addition to being smaller than the A, the M also had the virtue of being merely expensive, as opposed to ridiculously, gawd-awful expensive.

Inside the Steinway gallery, I felt as if I had been set loose in a roomful of eligible bachelors, with Stephen not unlike my brother, intent on fostering a suitable match. We worked the room. I sampled each Model M in turn as Stephen listened. I knew that, although my piano teacher had purchased a more economical Boston grand for his studio, he longed for a Steinway.

“Hmm,” Stephen remarked after I finished playing each Model M. This noncommittal response was difficult to interpret; my teacher rarely praised. At my lessons, when he said “Not bad,” I considered the session a success.

Yet I sensed that, despite his natural reserve, Stephen had felt the same lackluster reactions I was experiencing. I looked up at him. “You know what my biggest problem with the Ms is? I can’t get enough sound from them.”

“Maybe you need a larger grand,” he said. “I know you felt the A was too big, but why not an O? That’s the smallest concert size they have.”

I nodded. In silent complicity, Stephen and I wandered over to the side of the store that housed two Model Os. I sat down at the first one and played Chopin’s “Raindrop” Prelude. Having engaged with ten pianos in two hours, I found that the instruments’ distinctive sounds began to blur, as if a group of people were assuming the same facial characteristics.

I glanced at Stephen, who sat in a chair next to the piano. “Am I imagining things, or does this piano sound really awesome?”

“It sounds very good.” That’s the closest he gets to expressing a superlative.

I relinquished the bench and Stephen launched into Liszt’s Un Sospiro. The melody pealed in vivid color, the rippling arpeggios sounded delicate, the infrastructure of bass notes rang deep-throated and sure. This instrument had to be one of the most luxuriant pianos I ever had heard.

I reclaimed the bench to try Debussy’s Reverie. When the treble notes rang with a lucid sweetness, with the subtlest hint of bite, I shuddered. This instrument seemed to represent everything the piano meant to me: the pleasure that washed over me whenever I practiced, piqued by my resolve to never again abandon the piano. I dropped my hands in my lap. “This piano is gorgeous.”

Stephen covered his face with his hands. “I really need a Steinway,” he moaned.

There was one small sticking matter: the price. Listed at over $50,000, this piano cost more than anything I ever had purchased, except for my graduate degree (funded by years of careful saving) and my home. The following day, David negotiated with John on my behalf, but when he couldn’t get the price down to where we wanted it, I decided to walk away.

I no longer had the heart to shop for a grand piano. Some mornings I awoke remembering the Model O’s delicious bite in the treble. Other evenings, as I drifted off to sleep, I heard its deep, comforting bass. I talked about the piano with one of my closest girlfriends. “The one that got away,” I said.

Two months after declining the Model O, late at night, my head propped up on a pillow, I read Piano: The Making of a Steinway Concert Grand, by James Barron. Just before I turned out the light, I flipped to the dedication page: “To Jane, for No. 252669—and everything else.” While David slept beside me, I trembled with a mixture of awe and outrage: the author owned a Steinway! Yet why should the author not own a Steinway, since that, in fact, was the very topic of his book? Barron’s candor in listing his serial number seemed to give me the permission I craved to declare my desire.

The next morning, I dialed the Steinway store. “John, do you still have that O I really liked?” My voice came out as a whisper.

“I do,” he said, “and we have a storewide sale going on.” Sales at Steinway are not the 50%-off orgies that rock electronic stores, but for a purchase as large as my Model O dream piano, the discount made a difference. John promised to reserve it for me.

Selling my Yamaha upright—a dealer offered an amount close to its purchase price—could help fund my new Steinway O. I felt a small lump in my throat at the Yamaha’s leaving after our five-year relationship, yet the thought of the red “Hold” tag on my beloved O excited me far more. That night I told David what I wanted to do. “I tried a lot of different models, but this is the piano I fell in love with.”

“It’s a big investment, but Cal or Mena will have it someday. Let’s do it!”

Now, in my home office, my desk faces the wall so that I cannot see my piano, handsome in its muted ebony, while I work during the day. Nevertheless, I can feel its presence lounging behind me. Sometimes, for a break, I cave into temptation and sit on its bench to run through the first page of a Chopin Nocturne. I reserve the nighttime for practice. While my children sleep and David answers a round of e-mails, I commune with my beloved. I have found my piano match. I revel in the sensation of being one with its crystalline sound.

Nancy M. Williams is an award-winning writer, an avid amateur pianist, and founder of Grand Piano Passion™, an online magazine for students of adult piano lessons.

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