The Surprising Thing About Pianos


Over the many months I searched for a piano—and the years I struggled to reclaim the sound of the piano I eventually bought—I made a challenging discovery: the piano is not just a machine. It is a living, breathing entity. It has a soul, a personality, and how it presents itself to us, how it responds to us on any particular day, changes. In fact, pianos are constantly changing. The room warms up and they go flat. The air becomes dry and they sound brittle, and in humid weather they get cotton-mouthed. Since I was in search of a very particular sort of sound personality, this discovery was disconcerting and frustrating for me. But it was also intriguing.

What, exactly, creates the personality of a piano? Why is that personality so inconstant? What is it we experience when we fall in love with the personality of a particular instrument? In my book, Grand Obsession: A Piano Odyssey, I chased down the answers to these questions, not only by talking to lots of great piano technicians and builders and watching them at work, but also by traveling down the more objective paths of physics and engineering. I found many answers, from the prosaic to the poetic. And yet, the mystery of it all endures for me.

It probably took me longer than it should have to fully understand the single most important secret that every piano shopper should know: buying a piano is like dating, and owning one is like marriage. Here is how I described these experiences in Grand Obsession:

After perhaps months or even years of trying out many new and used pianos—the courtship—you finally find “the one,” your perfect piano. You buy her—a pretty voice, with just the right sort of musical intelligence—and you have her delivered—the wedding.
   After a brief honeymoon, you find that your piano is far from perfect. She has bad hair and bad breath days. She has mornings when her voice is shrill and cutting, and evenings when she hisses, “Not tonight, dear.” Her unisons are out. Her hammers are dry. You wonder whatever happened to the beautiful bride you brought home, the dream you fell for and believed you would possess forever.
   Fine pianos are tender, temperamental creatures, and the more beautiful their voices, the more high-strung and demanding they are: they need exacting conditions and regular maintenance or they throw tremendous temper tantrums.
   No one tells piano buyers about this. They are led to believe that the piano they play in the showroom is the piano they will have forever. But the truth is, pianos change constantly. At least, this is what I am to understand from talking to my technician and my dealer. But I am still the skeptic. I am not yet entirely convinced. I still want to believe in the perfect piano.

Looking back on that period of my life with my piano, knowing what I know now, I certainly would have done things differently. In addition to playing as many pianos as possible and buying the one I fell in love with, I would have returned to the store to play that piano again and again, on different days, with different weather, and in my different moods. Because it isn’t just pianos that change: we change too. Our touch changes, our ear changes, and the piano becomes a mirror of our own inconstancy.

When it comes to pianos, perfection can’t be bottled—beauty wants to be free. Once you’ve found your “perfect” piano, accept its whims, find the good in it—just as you do with your spouse—and when it shows its flaws, look the other way. You’ll be less tempted to tinker with it, which often will make your relationship with the piano only worse. Then it will be more likely to come back around to giving you those treasured moments of pure transcendence.

Perri Knize is author of Grand Obsession: A Piano Odyssey (Scribner, 2008). Her website is www.grandobsession.com. She lives with her husband in Montana.

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One thought on “The Surprising Thing About Pianos

  1. I am so glad you wrote this. I thought I had found the perfect piano 2 years ago and was really disappointed when it sounded off, twangy, on some days. I wondered was it my mood or the piano? some days I loved how it sounded and other days I thought I should have taken more time to try other pianos first and regretted buying it. Two years later I feel I made an excellent purchase but …
    Now I am in the position of possibly buying a “better” piano. I often don’t like how the other pianos sound even though they are much more expensive. But I am intrigued by the pianos and was wondering how much trying different pianos was acceptable without being a pain in the neck to the sellers. Thanks again for writing this piece and I may check out your book even though I do not read much these days.

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