Written by Vanessa Santilli-Raimondo for The Catholic Register on April 12, 2018
There is a special type of panic that is reserved for watching your piano being maneuvered up three flights of stairs.
Moments after holding the door to let three piano-toting movers into our apartment building, my piano, upright at a 45-degree angle, began a 40-stair ascent. As the movers rounded the first bend in the staircase, the silence was broken by shrill commands as they expertly moved my hefty antique upright to its new home.
Moving into a unit on the third floor of a building with no elevator meant finding piano movers who could safely deliver one of my most precious possessions — a gift from my parents on my 12th birthday. In the weeks after settling into the apartment, as I furnished my new digs, I never felt quite settled without my piano.
I can thank a decade’s worth of piano lessons, a Saturday morning staple throughout my childhood, for that feeling of familiarity. I only ended the lessons when I entered university and no longer had the time for daily practice.
From a young age, playing the piano showed me the beauty of self-expression. An ability to create sounds that can capture the full gamut of emotions in the human experience is a gift, one that I enjoyed most when shared with others.
I’d play for family, for friends and even for my Siberian Husky, who’d cozy up next to me whenever I was banging out a tune.
Springtime as a piano student usually meant a series of competitions, most often solo but sometimes as part of a duet. I was a student of the Suzuki method of piano playing, a teaching style based on the premise that, in the same way children learn language, they can learn to play a musical instrument through listening, imitation and repetition. I felt most at ease playing a song once the piece was memorized.
Strange as it may sound, the night before a competition I would usually turn off all the lights, sit down at the piano and play in the dark to make sure I was really feeling the music.
Recently, feeling nostalgic during a practice session, I busted out some of the songbooks that I used years ago in competitions. Flipping through the pages, I got to thinking: Is the piano on the decline?
Enthusiasm for the piano seems to have waned in the era of the video game. But the instrument is still being sold in relatively large numbers, said Jamie Musselwhite of Paul Hahn & Co., a piano business established in Toronto more than 100 years ago. “Globally, the piano market is expanding. Every year, more are being built to service this growing market.” Domestically, however, fewer pianos are being made.
After years of musical inactivity, I recently dived back into playing. My piano is the same as ever, but I was surprised to learn that you can now simply use Google to find an electronic metronome over the Internet in order to keep time while playing. But that discovery was far less unsettling than learning of the most recent piano-related innovation — the electronic, self-playing piano.
An article last month in the newspaper USA Today highlighted the popularity of a Steinway piano called the Spirio, which actually plays itself. Purchasers of this piano — which start at around $125,000 — get an iPad that comes with a mobile app loaded with about 1,700 songs. You just pick a song, sit back and watch the keyboard come to life as it plays the selection perfectly.
That’s something my younger self would have given anything for in order to get through those Saturday morning piano lessons I hadn’t always practised for. But my older self hardly sees this as progress.
As advancements go, I suppose this is novel, but launching a pre-programmed piano into a song will never beat the incredible feeling of mastering — and getting lost in — a piece of music. The piano is a work of art which has inspired the likes of Mozart and Beethoven to create music that has touched souls for generations. No matter what reinventions are dreamt up, there’s just no replacing the original.
As the movers wheeled my piano safely into my new apartment, I breathed a deep sigh of relief. I watched them reassemble some delicate parts that had been removed to protect them during the move. Then they reattached the lid that covers the keys. It was comforting to see my precious instrument whole again.
And comforting, too, to know that as I put down new roots I could bring some old ones with me.