I am a self-professed piano snob. Have been for most of my life. Well, definitely since I was old enough to form my own opinion about that matter, and not just take what was fed me. For me, it’s a piano, a real piano, actually a grand piano preferably, or it’s nothing. I don’t hold with electronic keyboards, and have, over the years, stated my case whenever the subject came up. I don’t see them as an alternative instrument, I see them as an inferior substitute to be played only when you simply have no other choice. I absolutely don’t see them as a sensible, preferred instrument of choice, one that any musician worth their salt would elect as their main instrument. I mean, the sound! How can you compare the sound! And the whole thing, it’s just not right. I can see a use for electronic piano in a rock band, but even jazz, why wouldn’t you have a proper piano? Why “settle” for a keyboard?
Last night I returned from a four-day stint at an ashram. Don’t ask! It’s not for me, the whole thing, but that’s a whole other story. During the chanting, I met a new instrument. Well, it’s been around since the 1840s, it’s just that I have never heard of one before, so it was new to me, but definitely not new. Have you ever seen or heard a harmonium?
It has a small keyboard, no hammers, no strings, but with bellows at the back that you pump with one hand as you play the keys with the other. The sound is rather like an organ, but different. Each time you “pump” the bellows, the note you’re holding down plays like a new note. See the knobs in front of the box? You pull those out to open up the bellows. And you can also play a drone note – holding down a key, usually the bass A or D, to add texture and harmony. An interesting instrument. Apparently big in India, especially with the Hindu mantra chanting.
One of the other people visiting the ashram ( I so want to say “one of the other inmates”) had brought her keyboard with her, and opened it up one afternoon so that we could have a play. I was missing my grand, so I jumped – yes, I know, I did say jumped – at the opportunity. It was a Casio, with a four octave keyboard, from C to C, so I could play four octaves of the C scale, but that was about it. Not really enough keys to swing a cat, so to speak, but it wasn’t all bad. As she showed me the different options, and I played a little on it, I got quite excited. I began concocting and constructing whole conversations with clear logical pathways to justify buying one. I mean, think of the opportunities! I’d definitely buy one with a full keyboard, but imagine – I could take it with me when I travel away from home. It only weighed about two kilos, light as a feather! I could also have it set up at home to practice when the rest of the world slept, with a headset. Well, not completely sure about that, but as a backup, it’d work, right? Imagine that – me, wanting an electonic keyboard!
Another diversion, although not as far. Last week, I heard an interview on the radio about Gerard Willems’ recordings of Beethoven’s works, and his insistence on using the Stuart & Sons piano with its one hundred and two keys, four pedals, and aggraffe. Fascinating.
They aired Für Elise played on this piano, and although my car radio speakers leave a lot to be desired, I could still hear the new resonance this piano creates. Truly wondrous.
So why am I saying all this? What’s my point? My thinking is changing. I have room now for new perspectives, new approaches, new instruments, new versions of existing instruments. I still prefer the grand piano above all, but I have a newfound appreciation of other interpretations of instruments of sound, pianistic sound.