Murdering My Piano

By Tom Shroder
Sunday, November 19, 2006

SOMEONE OUT THERE IS GOING TO KNOW EXACTLY WHAT I SHOULD HAVE DONE WITH MY PIANO. Now that I'm about to reveal its sad fate, I know I will be cursed for being wasteful and unfeeling, and worse, unimaginative -- a crass symbol of this throwaway culture eager to take the easy way out. And perhaps I deserve that. You be the judge. But let me say this in my own defense: There was nothing easy about it.

I'd grown up with that piano. I'd toddled beneath its broad brown belly, pressed its resounding white keys for the first time by reaching above my head with fat little fingers. At every stage of my life, nearly half a century's worth of memories had been framed by the dark graceful curve of its wood and the echo of notes sounded through four generations. It was, perhaps, the single most significant heirloom of my childhood -- and unquestionably the largest and heaviest.

And when I grew up, I, of all my siblings, had been appointed its caretaker. Which turned out to be a mixed blessing. Age and frequent moves took their toll. As it neared the end of its first century, the piano was ailing -- marked and stained and increasingly tone-challenged. A daughter chose to play the violin, a son the guitar. The piano began a downward spiral of shifts to ever more out-of-the-way locations, each one requiring the expense of professional movers, until finally I could no longer ignore the fact that it was simply in the way.

"We want to give this beloved old piano free to a good home," was the wording of the notice we placed online. But as it turned out, no good home would have it. When even the Salvation Army balked at taking it, I was hit with queasy panic, a fear of something so hideous I could barely say it out loud: The final solution to my piano problem wasn't going to be a moving van.

Once upon a time, if your phone went on the blink, you didn't just toss it out and head down to Best Buy to charge a new one for $79.99. The phone wasn't even yours to trash. It belonged to the phone company (there was only one!), which sent a phone repairman (wearing a brown uniform with his name stitched on the pocket) to your home to take the phone apart, tinker with its brightly colored innards, then put it back together with the dial tone mysteriously restored.

It is to this strikingly archaic system that I owe the destruction of my once-promising career as a musician.

Okay, maybe not so promising. I was 8, a year of piano lessons had gone down the drain, and I still hadn't grasped how to make my left hand play one set of keys while my right played another. The very idea astounded me. I wouldn't have been any less stumped if someone demanded that I have two unrelated conversations simultaneously. When the forefinger of my left hand depressed a key, the forefinger of my right hand insisted on doing the same. Plus, I couldn't read music very well. And that rhythm thing? Didn't come naturally.

But the point is, I was still willing (barely) to try. So there I was at the piano in the living room of our suburban home laboring on such subtle classics as "On Top of Spaghetti" and "Puff, the Magic Dragon" -- or at least versions of those songs in which the fingering for both right and left hands was identical -- when the phone guy walked in. As he entered, my older brother, carrying his first-baseman's mitt, passed through the front hall, on the way out. The phone guy put down his heavy toolbox, turned to watch my brother disappear out the door, then coolly considered me, plinking the keys.

"So," he said -- and I can still hear the venomous condescension in his voice -- "your brother plays baseball, and you play piano."

That was it right there. No way I was going to allow my manhood to be questioned by random itinerant repairmen ever again. I slammed shut the piano lid and resolved to quit my lessons -- no matter what my mom said. I never played so much as another printed note. From that moment, my relationship with the piano was primarily as a very large, unusually shaped piece of furniture.

It would be a long and surprisingly meaningful relationship.

MY PARENTS DISCOVERED THE PIANO, a baby grand of undistinguished lineage, built in the early part of the century, in an old house on a Westchester County, N.Y., farm, which my father's construction company was going to replace with single-family homes. It was covered in glossy black enamel paint, and had an accompanying bench with spindly legs and a hinged top that opened to a storage space for sheet music. Though neither of my parents really played, both had grown up in homes with a piano, and I suppose they hoped that what had failed to rub off on them would rub off on their children.

CONTINUED     1                 >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company