Maisie (2008)

I started playing piano, I like to say, as soon as I could stand up and hit the keys. My mother had long since stopped playing, but her old piano became a refuge fo me during a childhood that had few social connections.

So playing piano became a major part of my life, but as a poor hippie I couldn’t afford to house a good one. I could only dream of being able to play with a great sound.

I was especially poor (financially, that is) while living in San Francisco in the 1970’s. But one day I walked by a big piano store on Mission Street, and decided to walk in. The store was mostly empty of people, but lots of pianos. I found a grand of some sort, and started digging in with the opening bars of a Brahms sonata—bombast and delicacy of the sort that no cheap piano could convey. The manager came up to me, and I was afraid he was going to start talking about money. But instead, he said, “It’s nice to hear someone who can really play. These pianos in the showroom are just furniture. Let me show you where the real instruments are.” And he escorted me to the back room, to a Mason & Hamlin grand. The sound was a revelation that I never forgot.

Mason & Hamlin is a name known only specialty piano lovers. At the beginning of the 20th century, it was the main competitor of Steinway for high-end grand pianos in America. Steinway leveraged its name into mass production, and became famous. Mason & Hamlin continued old-style handcrafting, and became a rarity. But the sound it produces is as good, or better, than even a larger Steinway. I couldn’t forget it.

Thirty-plus years go by; I’m still playing a cheap old piano at home, although I’ve had more experience with some fairly nice ones at some gigs.

October, 2008. Tania and I go downtown to shop for Halloween costumes. We park two doors down from the costume shop. One of those doors is a piano store; on impulse, I veer from our path and enter it, Tania following without protest. I try a few pianos; some sound okay, but nothing too exciting.

Then I see the Mason & Hamlin.

I start playing, and it’s another world. Not just the rich sound, but the feather-light action which seems to play itself. Suddenly my Muse is singing freely in a way I haven’t felt in many years.

Tania is agape. “I’ve never heard you play like that before!” And then, “You have to buy this piano!”

As it happens, I had recently come into a modest inheritance, and for the first time in my life, actually could afford to buy something like this. But there are other problems.

We don’t have room for it, I point out.
—We can make room.
—Only by getting rid of your furniture. You just got that wonderful sofa you like so much.
—Okay, we’ll get rid of it.
—I can’t let you upend your whole house for me, we’re not even married.
—Okay, I’ll marry you. Get the piano!
—Wow, okay. But this is such a big decision. At least I should do some comparison sho-
—No, it’s this one.

She had heard the Muse, and it was as if she really knew me for the first time. I was astonished—not least because Tania, who normally was unsure of herself, was uncharacteristically insistent.

So we got married. The precious couch departed; Maisie, at the age of 101, became the focus of our living room, and we celebrated with a “piano-warming party.” That party was such a success, such a radical improvement in our chronically-impoverished social lives, that we repeated it every couple of months until the end of Tania’s life. Those were the happiest days of my life. (I had some great photos of these events, somehow lost now).

Eventually, after Tania’s death, I had to give up the house to Tania’s son. Maisie found a new home at my Temple of Transformative Music, presiding over my “shamanic jazz” rituals. But that, too, came to an end. Fortunately, I was able to put her in the loving care of a dear friend, who plays Chopin and Bach, and continues to give honor to the richness of her voice.

3 thoughts on “Maisie (2008)

  1. Great story..! I had a chance to buy a piano made by Hornung & Miller. It sounds amazing..! However I do not  play well enough to do it justice..? But I’m willing to learn..But first I have to convince my wife..!Regards,Paul Sent from Yahoo Mail for iPhone

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