The old upright piano was a beast of a thing: black and hulking and ancient, with yellowed teeth and a sour, whining voice. It didn’t matter what notes you hit, or in what combinations. The sounds that escaped that monstrosity were uncertain, unstable. They scooped and plunged and stretched and wavered, never quite landing on a true and settled pitch. My grandfather, a skilled pianist who could stretch an octave and a third from his left pinky finger to his left thumb, walking that lovely interval up and down in the bass line while his right hand flitted over arpeggiated melodies, would sit beside me as I played.
He was a musician. He cared so much for the piano he had played in Corpus Christi that when he and his wife moved back to Florida, they wheeled the five-and-a-half foot baby grand into the bowels of the moving truck, turned it up on its side, and strapped it in for all it was worth. They brought it to Florida, and my parents kept it in their house for years. I taught my piano students on the same instrument.
I don’t know how many friends and family members risked their lives moving that thing. There should have been back injuries and several hernias. Somehow, there weren’t. They moved the baby grand from Tampa to Nashville, and I played it until a piano tuner came and told me it couldn’t be tuned anymore. The soundboard was rotten. It would cost thousands of dollars to replace. We didn’t have thousands of dollars, so we traded Papa Joe’s baby grand for a brown upright. It sits in our entryway now.
For all his gifts, my grandfather was not a teacher. He did not understand how someone could try and fail, how someone could feel less passionate than he about mastery of the piano. Of course, he had played on well-tuned instruments in churches all over the country. His ear was sharp, and he could tune a piano as easily as he could play one. Perhaps that is why our lessons pained him so.
I remember placing my small brown fingers on the chipped yellow-brown keys (real ivory) and hoping against hope that I’d chosen wisely. Even the best playing elicited atonal moans from the old beast, and my playing was very poor. I didn’t like to practice. I wanted to be outside. I especially didn’t like it when Papa Joe mashed his huge, broad fingers down on top of mine, in an effort to teach my fingers what my brain or my heart would not.
There were toy pianos in those days, little wooden things with a dozen or twenty keys, and I suppose they were intended to lure small children into the study or appreciation of music. I can’t imagine why. They brought forth high, sharp, scratchy sounds, like baby harpsichords with pneumonia. I don’t know if they were better or worse than the great, musty, toothy black thing I was supposed to wrest to my will. If I’d had my choice, I’d have traded them both in a heartbeat for an organ. Those old-fashioned church organs had rows of plastic keys in rainbow colors. When pressed, they belched large, grandiose tones. It sounded as if a troop of imposing German women had entered the room. Plus, organs had foot pedals, and if you could stretch your toes far enough, you could make a kind of dance of the whole thing. I didn’t make any real music on them, of course. But it sure was fun.
These days when I play, I’m a little sad that black and white keys are my only choices. It seems to me that yellow and purple and red plastic keys are just about guaranteed to make lovelier sounds.
Papa Joe would be mortified.