Saturday, January 21, 2012

Dreams Do Come True!

My lifelong dream of having the perfect grand piano in my home has been fulfilled!  After having traveled extensively for work the last few years, I couldn't help but begin planning my life anew while I was still in Beijing last summer.  Now that I would no longer be living out of a suitcase, I knew the piano would be part of my grand plan.  I had no idea just how committed I would become, but boy was I excited about the prospect of piano shopping!

In the beginning, the goal was to replace the old workhorse, a Hamilton full upright from 1920 bought off of a Craigslist ad. (Incidentally, it cost more to move than to purchase.)  I'd be sad to see it go since it'd been part of my home, but I certainly wouldn't miss the dead lower register - the result of completely worn felts - and the fact that the piano had to be tuned two tones lower than A440 lest the strings snap out entirely.  But, after I started trying out pianos, it was clear that I'd be making an upgrade of a lifetime.

The search took about two months, with multiple visits to four (or was it more?) dealerships.  The search began at Colton Piano, which was much smaller than I'd remembered it as a little kid when it was still a superstore, and a Chinese salesman railed at my poor sister that her hands were mushy at the keyboard, "... like tofu!  Tofu!!!"  After the economic downturn, the owner decided to focus on dealing in Schimmel pianos.  They were black, shiny concert grands, lovely to look at, but the sound was too 'glassy' for me, like the vast majority of the pianos I tried during my search.  Let me explain a little what I mean by that.

I am a Romantic and Impressionist era junkie, and particularly enjoy playing Brahms, Chopin, and Ravel.  I prefer a very 'lyrical' center.  In general, I love a piano that doesn't show its character right away - you have to coax it into working with you until it sings just the way you want it to, rather than it 'running away' beneath your hands.

Searching for your very own piano is a highly personal and subjective process.  It's not just an investment: it's a window into your hopes and dreams.  The goal was to find an addition to my household and my family.  This was not going to be a 'Sunday driver', as Bosko, the attentive salesman at Carnes Piano, called expensive grands bought by respectable families to garnish their living rooms, only to languish away and never be played.  This, it seems, is a fate worse than death for a piano: to be relegated to the category of 'very expensive furniture'.

I was briefly infatuated with a 1985 C. Bechstein, a sturdy salon grand with a sound and touch that much more wonderful than anything I'd tried up to that point.  It became clear that I wasn't merely going to replace the 1920 Hamilton; I was going for my dream.  I couldn't sleep the night I realized this, thinking, "Good heavens!  How are the finances going to work out?  What is a feasible budget?"  I knew already that there was no going back, though, and secretly, I was glad.  Really glad.

One day we went up to San Francisco to visit the Museum of Modern Art.  But hey!  Wasn't there a Sherman Clay store right by the museum?  Maybe we could just pop in and check it out ...

We never made it to the MOMA that day (still haven't, actually).  As we walked in and took in the vaulted ceilings and lush interior of the showroom, I thought, "Oh, crap.  I'm totally out of my league."  I imagined every piano in there had to be far beyond my (recently raised) piano budget.  The lady sitting at the front paid us no heed.  Finally, the store manager, Vince, greeted us and I told him what I was looking for.  He was friendly but non-committal, and invited us to look around.  I was too scared to play any of the lovely Steinways gracing the room, for fear of falling in love with one of them and not being able to afford it.

Finally, I couldn't resist.  I played Valse Noble from Schumann's Carnival, and Vince came back to show us past a set of glass French doors - apparently he thought me a worthy candidate to talk to!  Inside this room were more Steinways grands, the crowning glory being a Model D on a raised platform.  Vince explained that the concert pianists who come into town to play recitals or with the San Francisco Symphony all choose their pianos here.  "Oh crap," I thought to myself at that point, "I'm *really* out of my league."

I couldn't help but ask about some of the artists who had passed through.  "Lang Lang?" Vince said, "yeah, he's smooth.  Really smooth," and when asked about Yundi Li, Vince chuckled that he was "kind of a nervous wreck."  Ha!

But before he could get too far I rather apologetically told him my budget range.  To my utter surprise, he responded that yes, there were grands in that range, and they were also having a sale.  "Oh, really?" I replied, raising my eyebrows.  Inside, I was jumping up and down, waving my arms wildly.

A few hours later, two pianos were on my mind: a 1934 Model L (5'10"), and a 1976 Model M (5'7").  The former had a bigger sound, but the latter was just so ... precious, in every way.  It was the piano at the front of the showroom, the one I'd first played the Schumann on that afternoon.

I could hardly think the rest of the evening.  I had the feeling that this was it, but that I would sleep on it.  As it turned out, I woke up in the middle of the night, thinking, "Oh my god, the piano!" and I knew.

The following Tuesday, the deal was sealed.  Vince stayed late at the store to accommodate our work schedules and traffic.  He seemed genuinely pleased that the piano was going to a family that would cherish it and play it often.  He threw in the DVD "Note By Note" about the making of a Steinway concert grand, a coffee table book on Steinway and its history, and even offered to trade in the Hamilton for more than we'd originally paid for it!  I was in seventh heaven.

It's been a few months after Steinway joined our family, and I still marvel at the sheer delight of sound and touch of this most amazing instrument.  This isn't just about Steinway worship, mind you; I've met Steinways I didn't like at all.  But this one is perfect, for me.  Even playing scales has me in raptures, and when I see "Steinway & Sons" above my hands as I play, I can't believe that I'm living my dream.