I was in the market for a new piano this year.
Back in 1998, when I realized that we were settling in New Hampshire for at least the medium term, I decided to buy a piano. I had never owned a piano of my own. After doing some research, I settled on an old piano that I found in the basement of an auctioneer. It was a Hardman, made in the 1940s. It was a 5′ 4″ foot grand, fitting nicely into the parlor of our crumbling old farmhouse.
It wasn’t the piano that I wanted, but it was the piano that I could afford. I wanted an older American-made grand piano, something that would fit in our parlor, had a big sound, and wouldn’t break the bank. This piano had a beautiful dark wood case. And really, there was no way that I could afford the Steinway with the deep bass sound that I really wanted.
This piano had its quirks. The action wasn’t very crisp, and sometimes you thought you had pressed a key but didn’t get a response. That was annoying. There was a buzz somewhere in the strings when you hit certain keys. And the pedal was a little strange. It didn’t have “give” and you couldn’t always tell if you were really pressing it down.
But I was fond of this piano. I had researched it and bought it myself.
This year, I bought a new piano. It took me quite awhile to decide to buy it–it was a lot more expensive than the old Hardman that I had bought in 1998. But it was a much better instrument. It was a 1914 Knabe, lovingly rebuilt by a local craftsman.
I hesitated because it was a lot of money. But I also hesitated because quite honestly, I didn’t play the piano every day, and I wondered if it made sense to buy a beautiful new instrument for myself when I no longer played every day. And my kids are older now. They wouldn’t be taking lessons or even using the piano. It would just be me.
I admitted to the piano builder that I wasn’t sure I could justify the purchase. I didn’t play the piano very often anymore.
Keith has been tuning and working on my old Hardman for a few years, and he knows what a tricky instrument it is to play. His response startled me. “Of course you aren’t playing very often,” he said. His voice was sympathetic. “You’ve never had an instrument that you had any feeling for.”
“The Hardman has always been hard to play,” I admitted. Then I thought of something. “Sometimes I wonder if my kids would have stuck with the piano longer if the instrument had been of better quality. Maybe this one was just too hard to play.”
As soon as I said it, I knew it was true. I looked at Keith and he was silent, but I knew he agreed. He knew better than anyone how difficult my piano was to master.
None of my four children are musical. When they were little, I thought that one or another of them might have the talent, the interest, or the drive. In the end, the piano was not for them.
When I bought the old Hardman in 1998, I was thinking of myself, not the kids. I bought the piano in order to recapture some of my childhood. I didn’t particularly care whether my kids wanted to play the piano or not, and I thought this was rather virtuous of me. I wasn’t about to become a Tiger Mom. If someone wanted to play the piano, then great. If not, then oh, well.
But I now realize that I unknowingly sabotaged any hope of raising four little musicians, even four little musicians who might want to play the piano for fun. The old piano must have frustrated them endlessly, to the point where there was no sense in continuing.
They are all happy kids, doing their own thing. Recently, one of them has taken up the guitar on her own. I don’t play the guitar, so this is completely out of my area. But I still feel regret that I didn’t just buy a simple upright for them, instead of the cranky Hardman grand that I came to love.
If you need to make a decision about an instrument, buy a good one. I don’t mean a Steinway. I mean a modern piano with responsive keys. When your kid’s violin teacher starts to talk about a “better quality” instrument, pay attention. It is tempting to think that kids don’t need fancy things (and really they often don’t). But a quality instrument might make the difference between persistence and giving up.