Wednesday, March 21, 2012

They Laughed When I Sat Down at the Keyboard

They Laughed When I Sat Down at the Keyboard, 2011
It just sits there and dares me.

I’m talking about a piano. It’s been in my living room for fourteen years. And before that it was in my mother’s various living rooms for forty years. According to the production number on its cast iron frame, this piano was built in Baltimore in 1912. So it’s safe to say that over the hundred years of its life this Kanabe baby grand piano has graced a few other people’s parlors, as well.
A piano is like a persnickety living thing. It needs to be played regularly. Changes in humidity and temperature cause it to go out of tune. All the little wooden pegs and pieces of felt become worn and brittle with age.
This piano was my mother’s most valued possession. I’m pretty sure it was a wedding gift from her second husband. I know for sure that it was the only thing she took with her when their marriage ended. No matter where we lived thereafter, the one constant in our life was this piano. No matter how tough things were, she’d never sell the piano.
I took piano lessons when I was little. I have a good ear for music. But I never reached a level of proficiency where I could just sit down and play. It was something about the eye-hand coordination. But I always wanted to be able to play, so I bought a piano and tried taking lessons again as a young adult.
I’ve read that not having learned to play the piano is one of the most mentioned regrets people have. This is probably a generational thing. In my parents’ youth, a piano was the social center of any respectable home. Today’s kids play electronic keyboards and Garage Band.
When my mother moved to an apartment too small for it, her piano came to live with us. I thought she might visit from time to time and play it. But she didn’t.
I thought I would take up playing again, too. But I didn’t. But I can’t bring myself to get rid of the piano, either. It’s like a world of enjoyment sitting right there in the living room if I could just crack its code. Meanwhile, it dares me to pull out the Hannon exercises that are tucked safely under the piano bench and practice.
This past weekend we had dinner with several other couples at a friend’s house. It was St. Patrick’s Day. Dinner was corned beef and cabbage. To be honest, nobody was looking forward to corned beef and cabbage. But the hostess is an excellent cook and the corned beef and cabbage were terrific.
The real pleasure, though, was the hostess’ 87 year-old mother, who keeps her mind and body limber studying and learning music for the piano. After dinner Marilyn sat at the piano and played. The family’s Irish, so she started with “When Irish Eyes are Smiling,” “Peg O’My Heart” and other tunes from the old sod.
It was when we ran out of Irish songs to which we knew the words—and this didn’t take long—that Marilyn really found her place on the piano bench. Debussy. Rachmaninoff. Ravel. They flowed out of her fingers like old friends. Marilyn has the ability to interpret the emotion in music that separates mere piano players from pianists.
One of the pieces Marilyn played is Beethoven’s Sonata #14, better known as the Moonlight Sonata. Like the Schumann Träumerei, another popular recital piece, the Moonlight Sonata’s one of those pieces that sounds so simple that anyone with half an ear for music thinks he or she should be able to pick it up quickly. But like the “Träu,” the Moonlight Sonata’s a minefield of sharps and flats and tricky phrasing. Believe me, I’ve tried them both.
Which brings us back to the Kanabe in my living room. My wife has been very patient with it. When it came to live with us I pledged to start playing again. But I didn’t. For fourteen years it has teased me.
I think I’m ready going to give it another try.
Haunting Me, 2012
 ["They laughed when I sat down at the piano" is one of the most famous lines in advertising history. Written by John Caples, it was used to sell music correspondence courses. You can see a copy of it here.]


  1. A few times a year, when no one is in the house but me, I sit at my ancient piano which my parents bought used when I was seven and play big band songs, like Come Rain or Come Shine, Stormy Weather, etc. Then I let my brain rest and my fingers wander across the keys for an hour or so. It's a wonderful meditation.
    I hope you give it another try.

  2. We had a piano in our house, growing up, and my sisters and I all "played." Let's just say Mary Kate is the only one who really played--she was fabulous: she could whip out Rachmaninoff's "Ritual Fire Dance" in a frenzy like it was merely chopsticks. Me, not so much. But it kills me that now, although she has a piano in her house, she never plays. If I had that talent, I know I would.

    We all always assumed MK would get the piano when my parents moved from the homestead, and I learned later on that they never even asked her if she'd like it--they gave it to the nuns in the local parish. Needless to say, we kids were all pretty nonplussed. Go freakin' figure.

    I say sit down and have at it.