Wednesday, March 26, 2008

A Different Kind of Love Affair

There must be a name for it. I don’t know what it is but I know that I am guilty: giving a book as a gift to a member of your household – a book that you yourself really want to read – with the knowledge that it will now be readily available to you. This time the “smoking gun” is The Piano Shop on the Left Bank by Thad Carhart that I gave to my spouse, a lapsed piano player whom I hoped to coax back in to playing again. He hasn’t read the book yet but I have and enjoyed it on many levels.

The book’s subtitle says a lot about one level: “Discovering a Forgotten Passion in a Paris Atelier.” The author is an American living in Paris and working as a journalist. As he walks his children to school each day he passes a small storefront shop with piano tools in the window. He is intrigued. But the first time that he drops in he is only left with more of a mystery. Eventually he wins the confidence of the owner Luc and is admitted into the life of the atelier. There is a lot of factual information about the history of the piano, how it came to have its current shape, details of the construction and repair of pianos, and profiles of some memorable piano teachers (good and bad) – along with generous doses of friendship, enthusiasm and French humor. It was really fascinating to learn that the physical construction of the early pianos influenced the actual music composed for those instruments. The early pianos would literally collapse under Listz’s hands.

But what also really moved me in the book was a description of an Italian pianist/engineer who decided in the late 1970s to re-engineer completely the piano, to challenge the Steinways, Bosendorfers, etc. He had to study acoustics, harmonics, woodworking, metal foundry and other specialties related to the piano. But he pursued his dream and his piano became a well-regarded (but expensive) reality. Look for a Fazioli at your next concert. What a great lesson: it is possible to take on the established leaders and to come out ahead, in effect, to “build a better mousetrap”. Just because something has been doesn’t mean that it must be! That’s what drives innovation and entrepreneurship.

I will think of pianos in a different way now - not to mention lifting the fall board at every opportunity. Right now there is a cello in my life - otherwise I would be sorely tempted to follow the author's lead. If you choose to read this book, you've been warned of its effects!

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