The New York Times recently had an article about the destruction of old pianos. Relatively few people play the piano now, and old pianos have become expensive to maintain. As a result, a large number of pianos from the early decades of the twentieth century have been taken to junkyards.
This article elicited a fiercely negative response from many music lovers. And it made me sick. With due respect, the piano is my favorite instrument. When I took a music appreciation course in college, the instructor and books tried to tell us that the synthesizer would replace the piano in future homes. While I have synthesizers, none of them will replace the piano in mine. No electronic instrument is capable of the full and subtle range of sounds that the piano contains. A major reason for my preference of Beethoven, Chopin and Gershwin is their exploration of the instrument’s possibilities.
I go back a long way with the piano. When I was about nine, I decided to become a composer. I was told that the best way so become one was to learn the piano. I asked my parents to buy one, but they hesitated. Months passed while I continued to watch Leonard Bernstein’s Young Persons concerts on TV. Finally, I began to make my own instrument. At the workbench in my basement, I put together a unique instrument using rubber bands as strings. A plywood box was my sounding board.
My father helped me finish the instrument, and with this he realized I was serious about music. My parents rented a piano, and a Baldwin Acrosonic was purchased a few months later. I’ve been with the piano ever since.
I took eleven years of lessons in all. Other instruments have since come into my life. I’ve played synthesizers and guitars, tin whistles and harmonicas. But the piano has remained my primary instrument.
The reasons for the piano’s decline in popularity are many. It’s part of a general decline in instrument playing. Even in my childhood, many lads were buying guitars in emulation of British rock musicians. Today there are too many distractions. The computer, video games, CDs and iPods all distract people from playing their own music.
In the 1960’s the media theorist Marshall McLuhan wrote of the effects different media have on people. Some media are by nature more interactive than others, and will cause people to be either active or passive. Reading requires attention and imagination from the reader, and compels active participation. TV, by contrast, requires little from its viewers, and has led to a widespread passivity among the public.
I would venture to say that the computer, despite many claims, generally encourages passivity. Much of what passes for computer activity is actually sloth. Friendships made through Facebook or e-mail are not true friendships. When people have actual person-to-person contact with their internet friends, the friendships usually wither.
The rock video station VH1 started its Save the Music program in 1997. This helps to fund music programs in schools. It also encourages renewed public participation with musical instruments.
This program is necessary, and more should be heard about it. Few activities are more worthwhile or interactive than the playing of a musical instrument. Few activities compel people as much to engage with others.
I was fortunate enough to marry a fellow musician. We have home concerts, with my wife playing the clarinet or tin whistle. I usually play the piano or guitar. We play some of my compositions. It’s a good way to spend time with someone, and should not seem so old-fashioned.
A movement should be started, in harmony with VH1’s program, for the preservation of pianos and the encouragement of their playing.