The Piano Tuner
Mr. Rogers is on television. My daughter seems more interested in her blocks at the moment, but I have turned on the TV anyway, a bad habit, I’m sure. I remember my younger sister liking Mr. Rogers so much she asked my mother if Mr. Rogers could be her dad. Maybe I, too, liked him way back when, but now Mr. Rogers creeps me out with his lite jazz piano and his blue sweater and all that Christian niceness. Yesterday when I turned it on for my daughter, who didn’t pay attention then either, the story was all about how Mr. Rogers had to go somewhere and how his “good friend” would stay with us. Mr. Rogers’ friend was so perfectly coiffed and eager and they talked so much about being special friends and doing very interesting things together that I couldn’t help but snicker, thinking of the comments my sister would make now, watching that.
I am half-watching TV, half-supervising my daughter as I try to straighten things up before the piano tuner arrives. My little girl is clearly not interested in the television, and I am about to turn it off when Mr. Rogers mentions yesterday’s departure and holds up a poster of André Watts. “I had to go to a meeting,” he tells us, “and that meeting was about arranging a visit with another very good friend of mine, André Watts. He’s a very famous pianist.” I know this. I have many recordings of his. I have been to his concerts. I have even performed for him in a master class. And here he is on Mr. Rogers. I am transfixed, and even though I find Mr. Rogers and his fake-sounding puppet voices creepy, I want to keep watching. I want to see what André Watts will do. I want a glimpse into the world I used to inhabit: not Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood, but Mr. Watts’.
The phone rings; it is the piano tuner. I turn off the TV and pick up my daughter, who is excited by the noise of the phone and wants to see who is coming to visit. The last time the piano was tuned she still had two months to go before being born. I was already huge and lumbering, and I remember watching the other piano tuner wince as he heard my twangy, sadly out-of-tune Yamaha. “Make another appointment for June,” he scolded me. “I’ll need to come back then and fix it, since I doubt this tuning will hold long.” I nodded, and probably even said yes. But my baby was born that June, and it has taken until now, 13 months after that, for me to have the luxury of a moment in which to remember to have the piano tuned, to actually call a tuner. I called a different piano tuner this time, embarrassed by yet another lapse in piano maintenance.
When he arrives I think he looks less like a piano tuner than one of Mr. Rogers’ “good friends.” He has that ’70s look about him, the polyester tan of his pants, the part in his hair so far on the side that it seems to start below his ear. He looks scrubbed clean, no wrinkles in his shirt. He introduces himself and my daughter clings to me, unsure of what to make of this stranger I seem to welcome. I warn him about the piano; it is almost like I am bragging when I tell him how long it has been since it’s been tuned. I catch him glance at the framed advertisement for my last recital hanging on the wall. He plays a few octaves. “It’s really bad up top,” I tell him, apologizing. He noodles around and then says, “Well, you must have a really good ear. I’ve heard a lot worse.” This does not inspire confidence. “Are you a pianist?” he asks. I hesitate. “Yes and no,” I tell him. I nod at my daughter. “Not a whole lot of time for practicing these days.” And then we are off to the park, leaving the piano tuner to his tuning, the hour or so of tweaking open fourths and fifths.
Truthfully, it has been a while since I thought of myself as a pianist, although I suppose even when I did qualify as being one I always felt uncomfortable admitting it. It felt a little fraudulent: I had no CDs, no major competition titles to my name, no international concertizing. But people always took me at my word. I think they wanted to buy into the romance of it, the 19th-centuryness of it: a pianist! And the world I lived in for so long did seem romantic on the surface: telling people on airplanes or blind dates about my life at the conservatory, in the practice rooms, on the stage, always seemed to enhance our time together and give me an air of sophistication and mystery I otherwise lacked. But the reality of it was constant, lonely work, the result of which depended on the mood of whoever was listening and judging. When I first arrived at music school and saw that even the graffiti in the bathroom was music-related (“Liszt piszt here and miszt”), I vowed to never become like that, swore I’d never lose my perspective on the rest of the world. But soon my conversations were about music, my dreams at night were about music, even, sadly, my jokes were about music. Back then I was immersed in it, the language of tone and balance and phrasing and color. Now I hear of former classmates performing around the world. Now I fumble through basic Mozart sonatas for my daughter. Now I see André Watts on Mr. Rogers.
I was out the other day with a friend, taking our babies for a walk. As we passed the dry-cleaning place a few blocks from my apartment, my friend stopped and embraced the proprietor. I heard them exclaim how long it had been; the woman marveled at my friend’s baby and brought the entire Korean clan from behind the counter to see what their former customer had created. When we left, my friend told me she and her husband used to go there all the time back when they lived in my neighborhood. “She’s really nice,” my friend said. “Actually, she’s a pianist.” And then: “She’s like you.” She saw the look on my face and stopped short. “She was really serious, I mean, for a while,” she said by way of apology. I started to feel defensive but realized she was right. The Korean dry-cleaning lady is like me: serious about something my gravity couldn’t sustain, serious until I was forced to be serious about other things.
My teacher at the conservatory was a taciturn Korean woman, who with her broken and improvised English was somehow able to communicate better than if she were to speak in complete sentences. She was small and seemingly frail, but I spent our first year together terrified of her, terrified of her silence, her judgment, her fierceness at the keyboard. The student whose lesson was before mine always emerged from the studio red-eyed and puffy-faced, and I greeted the student after me the same way. I would get headaches from trying to concentrate so hard during my lessons, trying to please her, trying to match her sound. She would demonstrate something; I would try it. She would tell me I didn’t do it right; I would try again. She would tell me I did it right that time; I would have no idea what the difference was between the time it was right and the time it was wrong. Sometime during our second year things clicked a little and I began to understand what she was talking about when she’d use words like color and breath and timing. I didn’t cry so much during my lessons. I made progress, and I could tell when she would say “Good” afterwards that she was pleased with my playing.
Once during my third year she talked about her daughter, who, she said, was about my age. “She is like you,” she told me. “She is a writer.” I modified her statement by protesting that I merely liked to write. But she told me about her daughter, who wanted to be a writer, and showed me the story her daughter had written about her. It was beautiful and touching and in reading it I saw a side of my teacher I had never seen in the studio. I was honored that she had let me read it, that she had let me see her, for a moment, the way her daughter saw her. I was secretly proud that on some level she equated me with her daughter. Part of the story was about her daughter’s own battles with the piano, and I asked my teacher if her daughter still played, if she was serious, if she was considering music school. “Oh no,” my teacher replied, without hesitation. “My daughter is very good, she is good. But she is not quite good enough. I encouraged her to do other things.” She suddenly stopped and looked at me as if she were only just remembering I was there. She saw my face change, as I’m sure it must have, despite my efforts to mask my feelings. “Perhaps,” she said after a moment, “we should return to our lesson.” I understood then that she was a teacher of students she knew would probably never reach the level of understanding she had of music. She was a teacher of students she would rather encourage to do other things, knowing as she did of their limitations before those liabilities could be discovered by the students themselves.
At my last recital under her tutelage, she broke character and said in front of everyone at the reception what a joy it was to attend a concert of mine, since she knew I would be playing with intelligence and passion and that I would always be aware of the music and have something to say. But what broke me inside was when she whispered to me privately, “You deserve a better place.” I knew she meant I had done a good job and deserved to be recognized for it; but I also knew she meant I deserved to be a few years younger, with bigger hands and more disposable income, about to graduate from a school like Juilliard instead of the one where she taught. She meant I deserved to be able to explore music at the piano in a way she knew I could not.
I did not attend Juilliard for graduate school, despite her lukewarm encouragement, instead opting for an easier ride at a low-pressure conservatory on the West Coast. A few years later I gave a recital in New York and she was able to make it for the second half. I knew as I was playing that it would be my last real performance, and she told me afterwards, before she flitted away, “You made some beautiful moments.”
My daughter and I return from the park and before I even enter the apartment I can hear the piano tuner plunking chords, a sure sign that his work is done. I wonder what ended up happening on Mr. Rogers, whether André Watts performed, whether he patiently explained to everyone things I already know. And I wonder too about my former teacher: what made her encourage me in a profession she wouldn’t choose for her own daughter? What made her urge me to continue in the face of uncertain success? And what am I supposed to do now with my useless ability and knowledge? When we come in the piano tuner compliments me on the piano, telling me how mellow it is, how big it sounds for such a small grand, how the tone is comparable to much bigger, much better pianos. I agree and I tell him how I fell in love with its personality in the store, how glad I am it hasn’t become bright and brittle sounding, like most Yamahas after a few years. He plays a few more chords and then yields the bench to me, offering me a chance to test his handiwork. “Oh, no,” I say, “it sounds great, I can tell.” But he urges me to play. He points to the advertisement of my last concert. “That’s you, right? Well, come on!” Embarrassed, I put down my daughter and try to think of what piece I remember the most. The Brahms, I guess; I’ve performed it on almost every recital since I was 18. But before I can sit to the keys, my daughter has rushed over and is standing on her tiptoes, her fingers barely reaching the keyboard. She whines until she finally plays a few notes, then smiles a broad grin.
“Oh, look,” says the piano tuner. “She really wants to play.”