Friday, August 3, 2012

A Love Letter to Hamilton

Hamilton with the top open, showcasing its timeless beauty
You might have seen the recent New York Times article about the increasing prevalence of (mostly upright) pianos meeting their end in a landfill dump.  I admit, just typing that sentence made my heart seize; the thought of any piano - even ones that I wouldn't really like playing - relegated to such a fate arouses such an immediate and visceral reaction.

I can understand the power of market forces; there simply isn't much demand for upright pianos anymore. What a remarkable journey since the mid-1800s, when the rise of pianism made one requisite in every well to do home.

It is true that a piano is an embodiment of lifestyle, onto which the hopes and dreams of generations are projected.  It's not too unlike the statement we make with our choice of car.  My Honda Civic Hybrid says: "I just want a reliable, slightly environmentally friendly vehicle to get me safely from A to B."  In contrast, a friend of mine recently ordered the new Tesla Model S: "I am the cutting edge of technology. I am sleek, I am cool!" (Or is it, "I am rich!"?)  So, too, is a piano, be it a practical studio piano or flashy, shiny grand.

The Story of Hamilton

It seems like an act of hubris to decry the dumping of upright pianos, when I myself have given up one. When I decided with conviction late last year that the piano and music needed to take its rightful place in my life, my dream piano replaced the old workhorse.  In came Steinway (born 1976), and out went Hamilton (born 1920).

Hamilton - that's what I called it - was a Hamilton full upright, with a big, brassy sound. It was found on Craigslist and had been languishing in an old house occupied by Stanford grad students. It was covered in dust, papers, and various beverage holders. Nobody knew where it'd come from and who actually owned it. It was being sold for a song, and within a week it was in its new home.  It cost more to move than to acquire!

The first time I played Hamilton after its move, I was shocked by how bright it was.  For the first few months, I consciously toned down my playing so as to not drown myself in sound - I couldn't hear myself in such an intensely acoustic swirl.  Some years later, I realized I was no longer playing quietly; I'd eased into playing Hamilton.

Sadly, Hamilton had suffered neglect for so long that the soundboard and strings were all but gone.  The lower register felts were literally non-existent, giving a dull, rumbly, bass-voiced lion purring kind of sound.

The E-flat two octaves down from middle C insisted on going flat, no matter how much it was tuned. In fact, the tuner had to tune 3.5 steps down from A440 for fear of the strings snapping right off if tuned any tighter.

Still, Hamilton was well loved, and well played, for a number of years.  Ragtime sounded particularly nice on it. Debussy, well ... not quite as much, but it allowed the music to manifest!

When Steinway finally arrived, my heart pounded with joy and excitement.  And yet, I hadn't fully realized that it meant Hamilton was going away.  Tears, unbidden, welled in my eyes and my instead of pounding, my heart seemed to stop. I trailed after the two men who were pushing it out of the door, and stood unsteadily outside as Hamilton was loaded onto the truck.

"Bye, Hamilton," I called out in a small voice, and the movers smiled at me.  

Vince from Sherman Clay San Francisco, to whom Hamilton was going, had led on that he intended the upright to go to a school or community center.  I hope against hope that this was the case.  I wonder, and yet I haven't dared to ask.  I don't know if I could handle the answer if Hamilton had met the fate that so many other uprights have.

As I write this, I've had to wipe my eyes more than a few times.  Again, I'm surprised by the fresh, palpable emotion the thought of Hamilton arouses within me.

Now I feel as though I've done what I should have done a long time ago: I've written a farewell, a kind of love letter, to Hamilton.

It still doesn't plug the hole I find in my heart, but it feels better.  Thank you, Hamilton.  You were well loved.