Today Ben delivered the keys–their whites shiny and new and flush to the wood beneath. Ben leveraged all skatey-eight of them on their big board back into the mouth of our piano. Again, that bird can sing.
I scooted home from work to meet Ben and watch him return our piano to its full self. Of course, Ben and I chatted a bit, too. He had learned some things in the weeks that have passed since his first visit. (There’s a fellow at our instrument’s home factory in Queens who can trace just about every Steinway, apparently; just get the guy the right serial number.) Turns out our piano was built in 1915. Its inside holds same kind of metal they use to cast bells; when it’s in tune, this makes for a nice, “bell-like” tone. Its outside was mahogany brown, the first go around; not black. Somewhere along the line, though, someone did a fine overhaul of the instrument, and that’s when they outfitted it more formally—out with the tweed, in the with the tux, so to speak. In the mid-70s it came to my childhood home.
Who owned it before that, and before that and that, back to before World War I? I’d love to know. (So Red Violin-ish, right?) Can the guy in Queens tell me? I’ll have to ask Ben, when, after the New Year, the piano’s wood finally settled, he’ll return to do the tuning.
When Ben left today, I set the kitchen timer for ten minutes–the amount of time I had before I needed to fly back to work. I grabbed one of my son’s piano books. I played a few simple pieces. “Good-bye to Winter,” even though the season’s only just about to start. “Christmas Day Secrets,” since this weekend we need to put up the tree. “Chant Arabe,” just because. Years ag0–good Lord, decades ago–I also set the timer when I sat down to play. Forty-five minutes, fudged to thirty. Thirty minutes, compressed to twenty. Oh, I hated practicing. Hated. It. Grinding my teeth, I sweated it out, for as little time as I could. I banged the keys, slammed the lid, flounced and huffed and snarled. I made my mom furious first. Then I made my dad more furious yet. But they weren’t nearly as mad as me. Forced to play from the time I was five, with put-upon teachers who taped my lessons just so I could hear how bad I sounded, at seventeen, finally given the choice, I quit. Cold turkey. Sayanora, Baby Grand. I’m outta here.
Now the timer goes off, and I let it beep until I know students will be kept waiting if I play another note. Of course, I am on time for said students. I’m always, usually always, on time; it might serve me well to be less so.
Three hours later, though, I’m back home and playing again when my son bursts in from school. Teo drops his backpack and plops down beside me, nudges me to the edge of the bench. “It’s here!” he says, meaning the keys. He starts in on a piece called “Big Chief Running Bear.” Teo loves this piece, taken, appropriately enough, from a slim book of songs collected “Especially for Boys—7 Entertaining and Motivating Late Elementary Piano Solos.” Teo emphasizes the accented notes, the staccatos. He plays the primal rhythm, a la “Land of the Silver Birch” and “By the Shores of Gitch-e-goo-me.” He smiles as he plays. He is running through the Wisconsin woods again, the way he did over this long Thanksgiving weekend with this sister, his dad, and me, and his godmothers, too. He is again, with all of us, tracking the coyote’s prints, testing the lake’s newly frozen ice. He is sometimes fairly worried about bears; we’ve had a few encounters, and indeed, one did growl at his godmother as she gathered firewood outside the back door one night this past weekend; but never mind that. He is playing faster than a bear can run. He is Big Chief Running Bear now, playing and running to some kind of inner drum that moves with the beat of his heart, the blood in his veins, the rhythm of his hands. We don’t need to set the timer. He’ll run in the woods as long as he wants, and then later, he’ll come back and run it all again.
Later still, Farmer Boy read and Teo finally asleep, I’ll open “Especially for Boys” and run it, too.