Piano Passion

It's easy to play any musical instrument: all you have to do is touch the right key at the right time and the instrument will play itself."

-- J.S. Bach

It was all so dingy and dusty I couldn't bring myself to touch anything. Walking back to the front of the store, a youngish man behind the counter said, "Can I help you?" "Is everything here used?" I asked. "Just about, but I bet I can help you. What is it you're looking for?" "Something new," I replied, and then added, "I want something so new I can still smell the plastic that was wrapped around it." I thanked him for his time and walked out of the College Area music supply store. I was determined to shop until I found it, as my impulsive nature dictates. That morning, I had decided I was going to get a keyboard and I refused to let myself down.

I'd been thinking about reteaching myself for a few weeks. Grandmère, my father's mother, believed that the piano went hand in hand with refined girls. When we'd visit her and Grandpa at their modest apartment in Brooklyn, I'd watch in fascination as her long, bony fingers danced along the black and white keys. Less than ten blocks away lived Mom's sister Jane. My family sang along as Aunt Jane played songs from classic musicals, after which she'd entertain us with some of her original compositions.

Before we were old enough to read, my mother had decided that her daughters would learn music. She herself had played a big drum for the school band and sat through years of singing lessons. I can't remember ever "getting" a piano -- it was always there. Like me, in elementary school my sister Jane flirted with the flute, but neither of us ever got past B flat. Jenny managed to fiddle with the violin for a year but settled on the strings of a guitar. Heather and I, together in the middle as second and third siblings, endured four years of piano lessons.

I have vague recollections of the interior of several living rooms smelling of lemon furniture polish and mildew, but the faces remain blank in my memories. As with anyone's childhood, I recall mine in snippets and scenes. There's the recital at which I played "Itsy Bitsy Spider" for an auditorium filled with Catholics. An old-age home at which both Heather and I performed together, where I received a certificate for most improved (that time I played some staccato Russian piece). Of course, there was the time I wet my pants in the middle of a group class -- my fear of interrupting our chattering bird of a teacher won out over my bladder's ability to hold until the next break. On the way home, I wondered if my friend's mom would realize that my jeans were wet beneath me on the backseat of her car.

I loved to practice, but I hated the actual lessons -- most children have difficulty appreciating anything intended for their long-term benefit, especially at the sacrifice of short-term satisfaction. At some point before high school, I refused to continue; Mom relented and set me free. I would razz my friend Michelle about having to report to various things her parents had signed her up for -- piano, tennis, and more. As free as I could be from schedules forced upon me, I thought I had it made. Until recently.

Though I type incessantly, my fingers began itching for a diversion from my laptop's keyboard. Heather's growing family adopted our family's upright piano. I was at her house a few weeks ago when I discovered our old instruction books within the seat of the piano bench. Fingering through them, I realized I couldn't understand a single note. I was disappointed at my inability to pick up a book and play. I came home and announced to David that I must recover my lost piano skills.

Our new home-to-be, located at the top of the Egyptian (a building going up in Hillcrest), should be completed by June. I told David we could buy a piano along with the furniture we plan to purchase, but he was hesitant. "I'm not sure we should get something so big and so expensive," he said, and then carefully added, "I mean, I'd hate to have something like that if it's not going to be put to use." I understood what he meant -- we discussed future plans for having a baby, but first I'd have to prove my dedication and willingness to care for it, to play with it, to show it off before he'd ever agree to the smaller version of Steinway's grand.

David suggested I get a keyboard, and though I first rejected the idea, I soon learned that some keyboards sound just like real pianos and come complete with 88 keys! Getting a keyboard meant we wouldn't have to wait until we moved -- I could get it NOW!

"Whoa," my love said as he held out his arms, palms up facing me, as though he were a traffic cop and I was about to run him over. "We need to research this. You can't just go out and buy a keyboard. We have to read about them and see what other consumers have to say about theirs, and blah blah, blah blah blah." That's what it sounded like to me, because as he was talking, I was imagining myself performing a Beethoven piano concerto.

"Now. I'm going now. Are you coming?" I stood at the top of the stairs, tapping my foot anxiously. David negotiated with me and earned 15 minutes so he could read what some schmo had to say about Yamaha's P60. Every second was agony. I did all I could to make his reading uncomfortable. (Let's focus on my lack of patience and the anxiety generated by waiting in another column.) Suffice to say, I don't wait well. My impulsivity bone was vibrating, and I was sure I would explode if I did not have a keyboard by nightfall.

After the college store, we went half a block to Apex Music on El Cajon Boulevard, where I saw it -- an 88-key Yamaha P60, the one David had been reading about! Steve Olsher, third-generation owner and president of the store, turned on the equipment and demonstrated what this imitation of a baby grand can do -- "Yamaha makes pianos, so their keyboards tend to sound more accurate," he said, along with other such background facts that added to my gut-like conviction that this was the one for me. There was one small problem -- the color. When I began to indicate that I "must have this," David said, "That's not going in our living room." Excuse me? What?

"It's silver," he said; "it won't match the room we've designed together." He was right. Cherry hardwood floors, green and black granite counters, gray slate, and more did not play well with the silver hue of the keyboard and its blond maple leg stands. This became a point of contention for the next 20 minutes. David wanted a black one. There was no way in hell I could wait for however many weeks it would take before it would arrive. Searching my head for persuasive arguments, my mouth spurted out options -- it can go in my office, or I'll paint it before we move, or why not in the bedroom? But I wanted it somewhere it could be appreciated by guests, because I plan to perform, so I began trying to convince him that it wouldn't look bad with our colors. Our appliances are all stainless -- that's like silver, right?

He wasn't budging -- "Maybe in your office" was the closest he came to accepting it. I didn't want to wait, but I needed to know that we'd both be happy with this purchase. Finally, I came upon a good idea -- we'll stick it on the terrace! I could find some cover for it, to protect against the mild Southern California elements. I beseeched his face in anticipation. "That could work," he said. No sooner did the words come out of his mouth than I raced to the counter to say, "I'll take it!" Steve gave me a great deal with pedal and stool accessories, and they boxed up the very same keyboard that I'd seen in the store. I grabbed a few piano books and checked out of the store, a big, satisfied grin on my face.

David helped me set it up, and I lovingly fondled the cool, smooth texture of the keys. I tried a chord, and the sound of piano reverberated off the floor and walls to gently settle around me; memories of notes and tunes came fluidly back to my fingers. In the past few days, I've gone from scales to Bach. I needn't say it, but for those who don't know me, I rarely regret an impulse buy, from my first tattoo to my new keyboard, and I don't plan to change that anytime soon -- my intuition depends on me to carry out its wants and wishes.

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