Among the mysteries of music is why so many people study it in their youth, and abandon it immediately after. It’s as though all those lessons produce a vaccine against the pleasures of playing. Perhaps after years of strict instruction by some pursed-lipped teacher with a ruler in her hand, we grow afraid of doing something “wrong” by doing something different, and eventually shy away from doing anything at all.
This is sad enough when it comes to any instrument – but particularly the piano, since in the digital age it’s become both an orchestra and recording studio in 88 keys.
I didn’t want an electronic keyboard at all: My memories of the hapless rumpus-room Hammond organs of the 1960s and various tinny keyboards that followed fuelled a vibrant prejudice against such vapid pretenders to the acoustic tradition. The two Yamaha grand pianos I am privileged to own are champions in the arts of making music.
It wasn’t until I bought a mountaintop in the tropics with friends, where acoustic pianos cannot live, that I sidled up to Robert Lowrey at a party in Toronto last summer and asked with chagrin, “Can you tell me anything about electronic keyboards?”
I play the piano every day because my parents were wise – or at least wise to my fledgling nature.
My father blew sax and clarinet in an RCAF big band during the Second World War, and soon after, he and my mother formed a quartet that played at golf clubs on weekends for extra cash, with my mother on the piano. By the time I was 6, I could play God Save the Queen and other ditties with a finger or two. It was fun, and obviously time for me to take formal instruction.
But I returned from my first lesson in “classical music” and announced that I would never touch the piano again if I had to go for another wrist-slap session with that wicked lady. “No problem,” my mother said insouciantly. Only seven years later did my father quietly suggest that the piano player in his new band offered lessons on something called the American songbook. No scales; no tests: just a few tricks of the trade. It sounded okay to me.
By university, I had developed an act where I mimicked Mozart, Beethoven and Stravinksy in skits at the fraternity house. In summers, I wrote scores for melodramas and performed them in the pit to full houses. You see, I never took lessons: I never took lessons, so I played.
And in 1973, although I wanted a new car, I bought a Yamaha G2 grand. That piano has traversed Canada several times, and was recently rebuilt. It can make great noise, and was joined 10 years ago by another one. So two excellent acoustic pianos are part of my everyday – or were, until last winter in the troubling tropics.
Four months without a keyboard can erode a personality. Oceans of desire, conviction, frustration and erotic intent accumulate within. Behaviours darken and sharpen. Dreams take a Freudian turn. Friends begin to talk. Clearly, in my tropical future, a keyboard would have to be found.
In Toronto, Robert Lowrey has one of the most romantic piano stores in North America, including a second-floor filled with theatrical people in thick aprons poring over the skeletons of pianos of every ilk – yanking them asunder, banging and varnishing. But who knew that, in this new century, Lowrey had also embraced the Other Side, and added electronic keyboards made by the Japanese company Roland?
I knew the Roland from rock concerts, when noise ruled the world. I toured the various models. My skepticism faded: the keys resemble the resistance of an acoustic piano – a miracle; a computer program delivers many dimensions of sound. You can record. You can ask a friend in L.A. to add the flutes. The instrument can write music as you play it on staffs.
Critically, the instrument also won’t go out of tune in a tropical climate, where humidity grows moss on elbows.
And there are all those other “voices” available – all the other musical instruments beneath the keyboard. Suddenly, you must learn more Bach because you have a harpsichord. Suddenly you are composing music for science-fiction movies because the ethereal strings and synthetic tones conjure up the ethos.
Bach would love this. As a competent engineer, he expanded the capacity of the pipe organ to make sounds, even as he demonstrated the greater scope of mathematics to make music in his compositions. I will think of him as I explore music anew, because, for the first time in a long time, I can.
A former editor of The Globe and Mail, William Thorsell is currently a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, and contributed to the recent book, Diplomacy in the Digital Age.