My Piano Life

by Anna Dembska

Acoustic Pianos

My brothers and I grew up with live music in the house. My father, a paint chemist by profession, was a passionate amateur classical pianist, and every night the sounds of Chopin, Debussy, and Liszt drifted up the stairs into our bedrooms, coloring our dreams. All three children grew up to be musicians, and two of us, at least, attribute this economically questionable career choice to our father’s pianistic influence. My father (and later, my brothers and I) played a 19th century Steinway upright. I don’t know where or in what shape my father got it, but decades later, when I inherited the piano and had it rebuilt, I found out that the desk (the front panel where the music sits) had been covered with plywood, and its original legs had, at some point, been replaced. Despite its mysterious, apparently rough history, this piano worked beautifully for my father’s daily playing as well the kids’ practicing and creative excursions. We gave it a lot of hard use, and by the time I was a teenager, it needed rebuilding and was pretty much out of commission.

At the age of 20, when I took up piano lessons again after a 13-year hiatus, I shared a house with yet another amateur but devoted pianist, and we somehow acquired an old upright. I can’t remember what kind it was or where it came from, but I’m sure we bought it cheap through the classified ads. All its keys worked, and it served us well for my studies of  Bach minuets and Beethoven’s Sonatina in G, my housemate’s more advanced practice, and our art-song collaborations.

Later I inherited my father’s piano and had it rebuilt by students at a piano-repair school. In retrospect, I would not recommend this for a high-quality piano like a Steinway, but at the time, we couldn’t find a professional repairer who would rebuild a Steinway upright, since they couldn’t get original Steinway parts. The rebuild was kind of funky, and the piano now has a somewhat muffled sound, soft action, and some spongy keys, Moving it up to my 6th-floor New York City walk-up apartment was a major and terrifying undertaking! But I am convinced that the spirit of my father resides in the piano and helps me write music. My brother Peter, a jazz pianist who tunes it for me, found that by taking off the lower front panel, we could brighten the sound.

I spent a couple of winters in Austin, Texas in the early 90’s, and began to study piano again when I was able to take lessons cheap at Austin Community College. Once again, I consulted the classifieds, and with the help of a local tuner (friend of a friend) found a decent spinet for $300 (plus $60 for the tuning). The spinet was so light that four of us (all women!) were able to carry it ourselves, and when I left Austin, I put my own ad in the classifieds and was easily able to sell it for the amount I spent on it! I would recommend this approach to anybody with a less-than-stable living situation, or limited space or resources. The inexpensive spinet had a thinner sound than the uprights I was used to, but was still satisfying for my purposes.

I needed a piano for composing and teaching in my Maine cabin, where I spend summers. This is a primitive, no-insulation or central-heating situation. At a local second-hand store (an uninsulated former garage) we found an old upright which had been painted in mock-wood tan swirls and “prepared” with thumbtacks on the hammers by its owner, a local dance-band leader, to make a honky-tonk sound. I think this one cost $200. The sellers helped us lift the piano onto the bed of our pickup, and I got all my friends without back problems to unload it and drag it across plywood sheets over the pine needles to its new home. After having its thumbtacks removed and given a tune-up by the local piano tuner/repairer, this piano survived surprisingly well in a less-than-optimal locale, even keeping its tuning (almost) over the winters. If you are in a similar situation, I recommend that, like I did, you find a piano that has already thrived under the same kind of conditions that it will suffer with you. After 15 or 20 years with me, this instrument is heading towards PSO status and needs a rebuild (which I’m thinking about doing myself for fun when I retire). My care for it now consists of a yearly tuning (again, by my brother), and gluing back on the ivories that periodically fall off during damp periods. On a grander scale, I have plans to insulate my cabin, which will help protect the piano from severe moisture changes.

Electronic Keyboards

And what about electronic keyboards? I first met Joan when she played in the original version of the opera I wrote, The Singing Bridge, in 1993 (libretto and conception by poet Beatrix Gates). We performed this first workshop version in a gallery with no piano, and Joan borrowed an old Yamaha DX-7, which had little cartridges you inserted to add sounds. For me, this is the fun part of keyboards: you can play with lots of different sounds. For my second opera, To Music (1996), we had a grand piano for the first performance at the Camden (Maine) Opera House, but when we took it to Dixon Place in New York and the Brooklyn College TV studio, I bought a Fatar Studio 610plus, a keyboard controller with 61 “velocity sensitive” and “semi-weighted” keys, which we used with a Proteus FX sound module (both of them are still working and I still use the Fatar). This allowed me to “orchestrate” To Music with a variety of synthesized “instruments,” which we enjoyed despite Joan’s having to add switch-flipping (to change sounds and shift octaves) to her piano-playing duties. But at the point in the piece when I sang Schubert’s An die Musik, Joan moved over to Dixon Place’s battered, out-of-tune spinet. The keyboard/soundmodule combo just didn’t cut it for romantic art song, and any crummy wood-and-strings piano sounded better to us.

Of course the electronic music world has greatly improved since then, and some people like electronic pianos as well as what we call “flesh-and-blood” ones. But when, a few years ago, I had to perform (as a singer) with a fairly high-quality electronic piano (which the owners had purchased because of the Maine uninsulated dampness problem in their performance barn), the pianist and I were both disappointed. The sound emanating from speakers, instead of the rich, 3-D sound vibrations of an acoustic piano, frustrated and annoyed us.

Digital vs. The Old Wood-and-Strings

In Maine, these days, I have been composing mostly with a 25-key M-audio Oxygen 8* “keyboard controller” that I can carry in my day-pack through the woods and plug into my notebook computer, which has software orchestral sounds (I use Garriton Personal Orchestra), and notate in Finale as I go, a real time-saver, as well as allowing computer playback, a huge advantage for those of us who are pianistically challenged. Nevertheless, I often find myself going back to the “real” piano, with its broken ivories, worn pads, and stuck keys. Hearing the music in the room, coming naturally from the acoustic instrument, lets me listen in a way that the electronic keyboard simply can’t replicate.

* I wouldn’t recommend this product. Mine broke after only 2 years of use, and the repair would have cost almost as much as purchasing a new one. And they won’t let you buy the part to fix it yourself!