Monday, June 9, 2008

Traveling Piano



June 10, 2008

Our piano, a smaller kind of grand piano--parlor grand?--was finally released from the custody of storage--and then tuned.

Therefore, I can hack away at 30s and 40s ballads, Broadway songs, and very simple classical and ragtime things. I'm essentially self-taught, so I had the worst possible instructor, although my mother attempted to give me formal lessons when I was in 7th grade. It's basically chords and melodies for me. I'm good at reading the guitar chords above the melody, a short-cut for the left hand. I like the ballads in part because of their lyrics; e.g., "I got it bad, and that ain't good,' but also for the rich chords, with which one can improvise.

The piano's more interesting than the player pounding on it. It's a Chickering, made in Boston in the 1920s or 1930s. Our tuner says the Chickering craftspeople worked without a blueprint, so every piano has its own design-personality. A decal on the piano has the dealer's name--the Johnson Piano Company in Portland, Oregon. So we know the piano traveled--by train or boat, I guess--from Boston to Portland. (The photo here is of a Chickering that has a more ornate music-stand gizmo than ours.)

Then the piano's biography becomes quite fuzzy--until the piano ends up in a bar in my hometown, way up in the Sierra Nevada. They guy who owned it had bought the bar from my uncle. How the guy got the piano, nobody seems to remember. Then he got married--to a woman he later characterized as a "gold-digger," and she divorced him. So he hid or gave away lots of stuff to keep it away from her. He gave the piano to my father, probably as barter for some work. So my mother played it a bit, and I started playing it. In one octave, the notes always sounded tinny because somebody in the bar had spilled some whiskey on the hammers. After my parents died, we had the piano shipped up to the Pacific Northwest--through Portland again, as karma would have it.

It also happens to be a player-piano, and we have a huge box of the old Ampico piano rolls. Before radio got really popular, people gathered around a player piano and had a good time. But the player-part--a very complicated system that literally involves plumbing--doesn't work. We had the parts removed, and we kept them, so some day we'll restore the thing to its original state. We've already had the piano itself restored--new hammers, strings, felt, etc.

The Chickering has become like a member of the family--a member that weighs 800 pounds, even without the the player-piano equipment. I wish my two hands could get the keyboard going up to its specifications, but I do what I can. The best part is thinking about how much the piano, like a blues musician, has traveled. At the moment, it seems content in this house. It doesn't yet have those traveling blues.
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