Pianos, PSO’s, and the Practicing Pianist

by Joan Harkness

Acoustic Pianos

Pianists are well acquainted with fear of the unknown, especially fear of the unknown piano. Countless times I have arrived at a venue for a performance, wary of the instrument I am to play, hoping for a piano I could make friends with. My colleague Raj Bhimani introduced me to the concept of the “PSO,” that is, the “piano-shaped object.” Sometimes it’s the only way to describe the heap of wood, wire, and cast iron on which a pianist is asked to make music.

Fortunately, wonderful pianos do exist. Playing an Imperial Bösendorfer concert grand (the one with the nine extra keys — all black — in the bass) is a sonic and vibrational experience not to be forgotten. Or, the super-smooth Ferrari of pianos, the Italian-made Fazioli. Or, trying out dozens of Steinways at their Manhattan showroom and basement, packed with pianos coming and going from factory to dealers.

Sometimes that wonderful piano doesn’t come in a fancy package — it’s a surprising discovery instead. Tucked away in a church or community hall, this instrument may appear to be a PSO. But once you begin to play, you hear its history still ringing true. Hammond Hall in Winter Harbor, Maine, has such a piano. An upright grand, it is made of oak, which allowed its sound to live, breathe, and ring. The performances I played there were among my best, inspired as I was to let my own musical body come to life through this wizened old piano.

But mostly, a pianist is at home, practicing. Your home instrument is the one that counts. You will become as familiar with it as if it were a member of your family. Maybe it’s the bass, booming just the way you like it. Or maybe the G above middle C sticks when it’s humid – how annoying! Its faults and strengths together affect the way you play, how often and how long you practice, and most importantly, how much you enjoy your practice experience.

I’ve had a few home instruments over the years. The piano I grew up on, a Schmoller & Mueller made in Omaha, cost my folks $35 in the late 1950’s. It took me all the way from John Thompson at age 5 to the Grieg concerto! I liked that piano, but hated the bench. I finally got comfortable by abandoning it for a dining room chair with a pillow on it.

On to college, graduate school, and practice room pianos. These pianos varied greatly, from giant-sized, ringing-but-without-resonance upright grands (the running joke was that their only practical use would be as coffins) to decent, new Yamaha uprights which were hogged by piano majors. Of course, these rooms were not only occupied by pianos, but by interesting friends and colleagues who wanted to chat, complain, or go out for coffee! I soon realized that practicing at home was the best way for me to dig in and get work accomplished. It was a time just for me, for my hopes and dreams, undiluted by everyone else’s ambitions.

But since I wasn’t quite ready to buy my own piano, piano-sitting was a convenient arrangement that let me have one without the hassle of owning one. I took care of a Baldwin spinet, a nice-looking instrument that also happened to be way better than any practice room piano. When I had to give it up, I decided to buy my own instrument. For a hundred bucks, I got a blue stained, no-name upright with a mirror set into it! It tended toward a honky-tonk sound but suited me just fine, even to play Beethoven. I was learning that my musical ear enjoyed being stretched beyond the “beautiful sound” aspired to by classical musicians — I actually liked that low-brow sound! But above all, I appreciated the convenience of having a piano at home where I could savor my practice time in glorious solitude.

After some years, I got my very own “pianist’s piano,” one that would better serve my ambitions to improve my playing, and help my students progress. It is a Steinway model “L” grand that I purchased with the help of a grant. It traveled with me when I moved from Brooklyn to the Sierras of California. It will last forever by changing the strings and adjusting the action once every 50 years. It’s a bright, American-sounding piano with a solid, sonorous bass and a medium-to-light action — it’s my piano, in my house, and I love it!