A Farewell and a New Beginning

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On Sunday afternoon I said a very emotional farewell to the digital piano I have had for twenty-three years. In my pyjamas with a cup of tea next to me I pulled my grandfather’s crumbling score for Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier down from the shelves above the piano and played goodbye to my Roland with Prelude in C Major. It’s such a simple piece, but it’s one of my favourites. When I had finished, I closed the lid for the final time and began to disassemble the piano ready for the family who were coming to collect it from me later the same day.

The decision to sell my Roland took a long time to make because I am incapable of being rational and objective about objects that are of sentimental value to me. Far from being just a piece of electronic equipment from the 1990s that was no longer serving its purpose for me, it was my childhood piano, my first piano, and a friend I turned to at all hours of the day for comfort, whether I was feeling happy and excited or, more frequently, anxious, angry and frustrated.

Twenty-three years is a long time. Back in 1997 I was ten years old and in my second year of boarding school, an environment I found incredibly stressful and lonely. There was one thing I enjoyed about boarding, and that was being able to play the piano. I had started playing the piano at eight when we moved back to England from Germany and I started seeing a lot more of my maternal grandparents. We didn’t have a piano at home, but my grandad taught me to play some very simple pieces every time we went to see them.

At school there were several pianos in the boarding house, and the Chinese girls Sally, Yoshi, Shiba and I would sit and play piano together while the other English girls watched Neighbours and Home and Away each evening. As I was the youngest girl and still very much a child rather than a teenager, I had no interest in TV soaps or boy bands, so the piano was how I kept myself busy and distracted from the waves of homesickness which would rise up in me if I had time to sit and think.

In the summer of 1997 my dad was posted again and my family moved from Cambridgeshire to Buckinghamshire, the next county over from Hertfordshire where I went to school. With the move came the ability to go home every weekend rather than once every three or four weeks, church schedule permitting. Each weekend was given a letter denoting the time and location of the week’s church or chapel service; Friday evening chapel, Sunday morning church, Sunday evening church or Sunday evening chapel. Every now and then we would be granted a weekend beautifully free from organised religion.

On weekends where I was expected to be in church on a Sunday morning there was no point in going home, as I’d be there for just twenty-four hours before needing to return to school, put on my school uniform and sit on a cold hard wooden pew being told by hypocritical men who I knew even then had done much worse than covet their friend’s pogs how much I’d sinned. I’d spend the rest of those Sundays watching The Simpsons and playing violin and piano.

It was when we moved that my parents started talking about getting a piano. As we moved so often it didn’t make sense to have an upright acoustic piano, so we went to the local music shop and looked at digital pianos instead. The summer afternoon my Roland was delivered I sat and played the theme tune from ‘Titanic’ as well as all of the piano’s demo tunes and novelty voices and couldn’t quite believe my luck. I had been quietly dreaming of having my own piano, but I never thought it’d happen. Now I could play piano all the time, whether I was at home or at school.

My Roland saw me through school and up to Grade 6 ABRSM, which I now realise really was the limit of what it could offer me. I then went to university where I didn’t study music and didn’t have space for the Roland in my student bedrooms, so the piano stayed at my parents’ house and I would play it every time I went home to visit them. In 2011 Ed and I finally had room for the Roland and so my parents took it apart and drove it up to us in Birmingham.

It’s been lovely having the piano again, and I have played a lot these past few years but ever since I got it back I’ve had problems with the action. Every note sounded perfectly, but the keys felt stiff and I couldn’t play fast runs, trills or play pianissimo. I thought at first it was just that I was rusty and out of practice, so I started playing scales every single day to regain my strength, but to no avail. I don’t like to blame my tools, so I just assumed that the problem was me.

Looking back though, this period of time is the only time in my life where I have played exclusively on a digital piano. At school my lessons, carefully arranged to clash with weekday church and chapel services, were on acoustic uprights. At first break and at lunch I would skip lunch at the canteen and disappear to the practice rooms to play music, and after school I would sit and play acoustic too. Although I had a digital piano at home, my technique was built on a mix of digital and acoustic. I think this is why I managed to get as far as Grade 6 on a beginner’s digital piano. The digital supplemented the time I spent on acoustics, but it wasn’t the only piano I was playing.

The final straw for me came back in September when the E flat below middle C on my Roland developed a click and a squeak. Not bad after twenty-two years! I got a technician to come and take a look and he applied some silicone grease but told me that it didn’t make financial sense to take the keyboard apart and give it a more thorough inspection because it was so old, and digital pianos don’t hold their value. For a while I kept playing, but a lot of the pieces I like to play are in C minor, C# minor, A flat minor and E flat minor. I need a reliable E flat below middle C! I also wanted to challenge myself to learn more difficult pieces, and I knew that the action wasn’t responsive enough for that.

Since September I have been reading a lot about pianos and forum posts about pianos in apartments, and trying to decide whether it would be viable to have an acoustic upright in our first floor flat. I didn’t go and look at pianos or list my digital piano for sale because the lift in our building was out of commission for four months, but the week before Christmas the management team fixed the lift, so we went to measure it with a tape measure and check its weight limits. I came to the conclusion that living in a flat isn’t a problem. Our flat is the end unit so we only have neighbours on one side, and the room we have the piano in is the middle room of three. The building is quite modern and quite well soundproofed. I never hear anyone else’s TV or music playing, and we’ve had no complaints from our neighbours upstairs or downstairs about violin or guitar practice, or about furniture on hard floors. I assume that they either don’t hear us, or do but don’t mind because we only ever play between the hours of 10am and 9pm. There’s more noise coming from the street outside our flat to be honest what with a busy bus route, main road and the local student population.

On 2nd January Ed and I went to look at secondhand pianos. I found a dealer online who had some pianos I was interested in, and spent an hour or so playing different pianos from British Kembles – I played a lot of Kembles as a child and teenager – to modern Korean and Czech pianos, and then out of curiosity I sat down in front of a white Yamaha M108. I had always thought I didn’t like Yamahas. I thought they were too bright, too piercing, and that I wouldn’t like the sound of the white piano, but I wanted to keep an open mind. I’m so glad I did. As soon as my hands touched the keys and I played a scale or two I knew that I had found my dream action, and the sound was beautiful, full and clear; not too bright, but also not muddy like some of the cheaper British pianos can be. The only other piano whose action came close was a Kemble Cambridge I found on sale in my local music shop, but it was £500 above budget and I liked the Yamaha more. Interestingly enough, Kemble pianos are now manufactured by Yamaha too!

I went home to think about it a little more and listed my digital piano on Ebay, thinking it might take a few months to find it a new home. To my complete surprise it sold for £300 41 minutes after the listing went live on Saturday evening. The next morning, Sunday, a couple from Nottingham came down with a van to collect the piano for their fourteen year old son. The young man plays guitar and sings in a band and has been begging his parents for a piano for months on end. They bought him my Roland as a surprise gift and sent me a photo of him playing it, headphones on, iPad on the stand as he teaches himself to play. It made it so much easier to part with knowing that the Roland was going to someone who would love it as much as I had.

I know myself pretty well and knew that at that point I could spend another three months researching pianos, testing out hundreds of different instruments and not be any closer to making a decision. I’m so indecisive, especially when it comes to a significant purchase like a piano. I intend to keep this piano for the rest of my life and wanted it to be a piano that would enable me to learn to play Chopin and maybe, if I’m dreaming, even some Rachmaninov further down the line.

On Sunday afternoon we went back to the dealer, spent two hours chatting pianos and playing, and came away having bought the white Yamaha. I liked and trusted the piano dealer as he is a classically trained pianist and piano teacher, rather than just someone who sells piano as pretty pieces of furniture. When he played Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C# Minor on the white Yamaha I knew it would be able to take anything I could dream of playing on it.

My new-to-me piano was made in Japan in 1988. It’s an M108, so the equivalent contemporary piano is a Yamaha B1 but the B1s are made in Indonesia with laminated soundboards, whereas the Japanese M108’s were made in Japan with solid spruce soundboards. It’s barely been played, so even though it’s thirty-two years old this year it is pretty much straight out of the factory. The previous owners bought it and then left it to sit in a corner of their living room for many years. Because it’s white, I also got it for a very good price. White pianos aren’t as popular as black or brown pianos and my Yamaha had sat in the dealer’s piano room for eight months being overlooked for its colour.

I have named my new piano ‘Shiro’ 白 which means ‘white’ in Japanese. As he was made in Japan it made sense to give him a Japanese name, and my naming skills aren’t very imaginative; my cat after all is called ‘Minou’ which means kitty in French. It was one of my first words. I love having an upright acoustic to call my own. It’s a completely different world to digital piano, and I’m so excited to see what I can learn and where I can go with piano now. I’m teaching myself the second movement of Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata to begin with, as this was my grandfather’s favourite movement of his favourite sonata. It’s about Grade 6 standard, so it feels like a good place to pick up where I left off on my new piano journey.

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