Sunday, October 9, 2011

Sunday, October 9, 2011

When the salesman at the big piano warehouse in Santa Monica heard my dad say that we were interested in a used Knabe, Yamaha, or maybe a Steinway grand, he said, “Well, there’s this Steinway ‘M’ we’ve got in the back. . . .” And way in the back it was, dusty and shoved in a corner, surrounded by other pianos of haphazard sizes and forlorn shape.

My dad and I had been on a treasure hunt. It was my junior year in high school and I had been studying with Mrs. Nix for five years already. My constant dilemma – and frustration and heartache – was that I was in the studio of a concert pianist practicing for competitions on a Wurlitzer spinet. Try training for Olympic swimming events in a wading pool. Finally my teacher talked to my parents and said I needed a real piano. The discussion came at least five years too late, truth be told, but better late than never, and Akemi has benefited from what I lacked by never being better than the quality of her violin and bow.

Once the commitment was made, though, my dad took on the search earnestly. Together we scoured ads for estate sales and even had my teacher come check one piano out. The process was hit-and-miss, but Dad and I knew we’d know the right piano when we came across it. Dad was looking for the value proposition, and I was looking for the artistic connection, the oneness with the instrument. When I started playing this dusty Steinway in that warehouse corner, I melted, and I heard my dad say, “Oh, I can tell she likes it.” And that was it. I have loved this piano from that very first moment. It’s been a part of me, an extension of me, ever since.

It turns out this one was built during a good era for Steinways, 1941. I’ve learned a lot about this piano, and Steinways generally, over the years from various Steinway technicians. Each one has pointed out the same idiosyncrasies and indignities that came upon it prior to our ownership, repairs not done to Steinway specifications. And through almost 40 years of my own use, it has been showing its own wear and tear.

As a number of my pianist friends have rebuilt their pianos, mostly Steinways, with wondrous results, I’ve thought about how I’d like to bring this friend into its real glory. Bing and I talked about it as one of those “wouldn’t it be nice?” sort of retirement dreams. Then Akemi became the real musician in the family. As chamber music became a part of her, I looked into the future to see her using, and appreciating, this piano. Its restoration started to gain my priority, an ephemeral thought becoming a real goal.

I thought I’d wait until I was done paying tuition. But a little over a year ago, Akemi asked if I were going to live long enough to see her graduate from college. I plan to, but I also realized this past year that there are things I should do sooner than later, while I have the energy and brain cells to tackle them. This was on the “bucket list” I didn’t think I had.

And so my piano got bundled off yesterday. The living room seems achingly empty. But I’m not nervous about this at all; in fact, as I was listening this afternoon to a Glenn Gould recording of a Mozart sonata, all I could think of was how exciting this is. I’m feeling much better today, and generally optimistic about the future, but I’m still glad to be moving this off the list.

Ten years ago, ULI took the best photos of me I’ll ever have taken. One photo got used so much in ULI materials that it became known as the “Susan piano shot.” My hair’s whiter now, my face gaunter, but at least the pants still fit, and the piano will come back, better than ever, and ready for another generation.


  1. I cannot imagine that spot without that piano! I hope it comes back looking and sounding just marvelous! Love to you!

  2. One of my favorite photos has us all singing around the piano together.