Sometimes it’s like these old pianos have a soul


While restructuring a collection of historical keyboard instruments at the ANU School of Music, I was led to reflect on the mysterious significance that pianos can have in the human psyche.

Due to limitations of space and maintenance funds, it was decided to limit the university’s collection to the most valuable instruments. “Value” was considered on the basis of an instrument’s historical uniqueness, practical usefulness for research, and general condition.

Yet “value,” as we know, can be understood in different ways.

Vehicles of musical expression

Pianos still proliferate in music schools, despite predictions about the decline of acoustic music. Instruments used daily should be relatively new and in excellent working order.

Given the rate at which they are played in busy schools, they are usually replaced every 10 to 15 years.

Many pianists view pianos as tools, as vehicles of musical expression. Like a driver looking for a faster car, less responsive models can be thoughtlessly deleted.

Unlike an impeccably handcrafted 17th century violin, a piano’s sound generally does not improve with age.

Still, a piano student can learn a lot from the older instruments. Our collection includes a French piano built around 1770, and it can still sing if gently coaxed. As my fingers negotiate the uneven and primitive collection of levers, shafts and felts that make up its inner action, I wonder how many long-dead musicians have listened to its voice.

Sadly, however, it can be difficult to find housing for old pianos, especially upright pianos.

While grand pianos still signify status and square pianos have curiosity value (also doubling as small tables), Victorian-era upright pianos are now unloved.

According to a local piano moving company, two to three upright pianos from this period can be delivered to the landfill each week. This is partly due to their ubiquity in previous generations. Previously, every household had an old piano, often passed down through family lines.

Often of German origin and built on massive, massive chassis, these instruments are not timeless. Their mechanisms wear out, their felts become infested and their tuning blocks lose their structural integrity. They can no longer keep their pace.

If you paid to restore one, the sum would be greater than the cheap new instrument which would still outperform it. The worst thing to do would be to buy a dilapidated piano for an aspiring student, who might assume that noisy responses are a sign of untalented activity.

However, it is sometimes as if these old pianos had a soul. It’s heartbreaking to see an instrument that has withstood more than a century of loyal service being carried all the way, or “piano heaven”, as insiders say. There are often rich memories, like when Grandma played and the family came together singing.

The sound of a piano does not usually improve with age. Photo: Unsplash

Family members

The internal connections that people make with musical instruments are widely known. Indeed, pianos may seem like members of a family to some. How to account for this unusual anthropomorphism?

I was recently touched by the story of an elderly lady, an exceptionally good pianist and teacher in her time. She had purchased a Viennese-designed grand piano, a first-rate concert instrument, but was now about to move to a nursing home.

Of all the considerations besetting his family at this difficult time, finding a “home” for the instrument was of the utmost importance. It was more than just a piano: it was a living part of his life.

In another case, I was asked to help relocate an upright piano. Brilliant, relatively new and still receptive to many hours of rigorous play, the owner of the piano was happy to give it away. But not just anyone – it had to be the right person.

“I will always be grateful for the beautiful black piano that became a vehicle for not only my lifelong wish to learn to play, but also to make music with my son,” she wrote.

“My desire to make music with him came true before he finished school and left home.”

It’s easy to see why pianos are often more than furniture. They can embody the dreams and memories that propel us through life, sanctifying the moments when we are united by beauty and art.

In a world that seems increasingly focused on the quantifiable, the measured and the physically real, music can still catch us in its grip.

Through the process of reorganizing our collection, one instrument remained. In all respects, he is neither unique nor outwardly special. Yet he wore a plaque, in loving memory of someone’s mother.

Maybe it’s because his song still resonates inside, I didn’t plan to delete it. The conversation

Scott DavieDeputy Head of School, Lecturer in Piano, School of Music, Australian National University.

This article is republished from The conversation under Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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