Which came first? In the area of chickens and eggs the discussion is ongoing. Don’t place your bets one way or another.
In the case of pianos, it is a bit more complicated, as a lot depends on when and where you were born.
If you were born in Europe in the early 1700’s your new ears would have taken in many interesting sounds, first, close at hand: family and friends singing all kinds of traditional songs; then, through open windows, street vendors, outdoor workers, nuns, priests, or cantors intoning liturgical chants, and bells, bells, bells: tolling the hour – sometimes the quarter-hour, knelling funerals, pealing weddings; not to mention the many instruments with which people amused themselves indoors and out.
Among those instruments were dulcimers, some plucked, some hammered (the dulcimer is a folk instrument common to this day). Some historians see a direct link between the hammered dulcimer in Germany and the piano. Whatever its provenance, the first piano came into existence in 1727 at the hands of Christoforo Christofori in Florence.
It would have knocked everyone’s socks off. (The shock would have been proportional though the reverse of my shock on first touching the completely dry sound of a harpsichord.)
For, until then, keyboard instruments simply did not resonate. In fact, the harpsichord’s bass line, in order to generate resonance, had to be doubled by a cello. I was startled when, as harpsichordist in a chamber ensemble, I first noticed the vibrations of my bass line sympathetically magnified from … over there! — from inside the cello.
I was born not in Europe in the early 1700’s, but in post-Depression-era Chicago in the 1930’s. Media exposure was limited to the radio on which, if music was played, it was strictly pop. My family was not into classical music; I had no clue what that was and we certainly did not have a piano.
But our across-the-hall neighbor, Mrs. Swenson, did have a spinet. She would leave her door unlocked so that I could go and play it whenever I felt the urge. (I believe the reason to be that this provided much needed distraction from the dreadful loneliness occasioned by her only son serving in the United States Navy in the South Pacific during World War II.) I would fool around while Mrs. Swenson, quietly ironing, listened.
I know that I was not more than three or four because we moved away just before my fifth birthday. (My first quit.)
Thus, in my case, ears definitely came first. In fact, Marshall McLuhan might support my belief that I effectively invented the instrument, as whatever I did when I played it reflected only and entirely my connection with that sound. I had never seen or heard anyone play a piano. This was my special toy.
After we moved away it was a couple of years before the local children’s choir director persuaded my father to buy a piano, and I took lessons.
My bitter disappointment as the lessons progressed was matched perhaps by the combination of my deep admiration for the teacher and my exhilaration at the prospect of actually learning the piano. But the sounds I was supposed to produce in response to John Thompson’s Book One had nothing to do with the sound of the piano which I loved as if with all my might.
I resolved not to practice my lessons, though I went dutifully, pretending to be prepared.
In fact, I had prepared, in a way, by incessant fooling around on the piano, devouring every song in every song book I could find, singing, looking for “real” sounds that spoke to the instrument I so dearly loved. At no time was I scolded for not being prepared according to the teacher’s expectations; the lessons continued until she retired and moved away.
You might say that I quit piano lessons the moment they began. (I call this a partial quit.)
You might say, too, that I had already though unknowingly, learned the hardest lesson of all: that one’s own ear is the real instrument, and that learning to please one’s ear is the real and lasting challenge. I am still at it after 75 years, with no end in sight. (I tell my students that the moment I find it tedious I will take up professional potato mashing.)
But the path has been devious. It has involved, in addition to many quittings of my own–some voluntary, some not–literally hundreds of students, many of them piano quitters, of all ages, 4 1/2 to 65+, professionals in a vast variety of fields, from glycobiology to computer animation.
In this newsletter I will address the pianistic lives of many of these individuals, as well as those of you subscribers who let me know of your situations past and/or present.
There is no sound more complicated than that of the piano. How can playing it / quitting it / loving it be simple?
© Nancy Garniez 2017