Out with the old

    I can’t shake a powerful sense of sadness this afternoon. Around noon, the movers came to remove my old piano, a 7-foot Kawai I’ve owned since I was 22 years old, and replace it with a rebuilt Steinway model A, from the 1890s, a considerably smaller but more elegant instrument. I’ve had the Kawai for a quarter century now. It has moved with me from New York to Detroit to St. Louis to Washington, and every apartment or house I’ve ever lived in has been chosen primarily for its capacity to hold a very big, shiny black box.
    When I was still in my early twenties, it came along with me on a failed but necessary experiment in romance and cohabitation.  The relocation taught me a painful lesson in practical geometry. I reasoned this way: If I am 5’ 10” and my piano is less than that in width, and if I can walk up the stairs without bumping my head, then certainly my piano will make it up to the third floor. Big mistake. One must measure perpendicular to the angle of the stairs.
    The piano wouldn’t fit and there it sat, on 14th Street, with crowds and cars rushing by. The movers had no good ideas and I was fairly desperate. I realized there was a pair of large French windows on the back of the new apartment, which looked onto a parking lot. I found a phone book, hired a crane company (minimum three guys, three hours each at union hourly rate), and paid the parking attendant to let me use the space. Then I hired a carpenter to tear out the window–making a space big enough for the piano to pass through–and then replace it when finished. Many thousands of dollars later the piano was in its new home. Only a few months later my experiment in cohabitation was over, and I repeated the whole process in reverse.
    I loved that instrument. kawaiiSaying goodbye to it was remarkably hard. You don’t realize how much an instrument becomes integral to your identity. I chose it when I was playing mostly large 19th-century repertoire, especially Chopin and Liszt. More than any other instrument I tried, the old piano had clarity and ping in the bass. When you wanted to make a lot of noise, the piano came with you without protest.
    I’m playing mostly Bach now, which is likely a getting older thing. The new piano is very responsive, and has a deliciously sweet upper range, bell-like and clear. The action is better, and the damper pedal doesn’t have the occasional quirks of the old piano. The bass, well, I suppose I’ll get used to its muddier sound, which is to be expected given the smaller size of the instrument.
    Grief comes in all sizes, sometimes attached to lost people, sometimes to places, sometimes to things, and often simply to time itself. The loss of a beloved thing, which was a symbol for youth, that’s the explanation.


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4 responses to “Out with the old

  1. Peter Carwell

    Ah Philip! I remember that move and that apartment and that cohabitation OH SO WELL. Congratulations and I would love to catch up with you one of these days.

  2. Becky Paugh

    Philip. Just now made the incredible connection that you are the same Philip who played the piano at Deep Springs during the summer of 1984. I was the farm girl who took care of the Pope girls that summer. Am I confused about your identity? Either way, congratulations on your Pulitzer Prize. Becky

  3. James McCarty

    If you’re playing mostly Bach, you should have gone for something a bit older. And harpsichords are much easier to move.

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