I have worked in the film industry for about 40 years, and my career has been in the field of theater and television and film. I’ve always loved drama and writing, but my background was music. I have now gone back to music and went back to taking piano lessons about a year ago. The last time I had taken a piano lesson was in my senior year of college although I have played off and on during the years.
But I grew up with music. My mother was a piano and voice teacher and was a beautiful pianist. She would have been considered just under the level of a concert pianist and she did do some concerts. I grew up with a 7-foot Steinway grand piano in our living-room which that was the center of our life. We played piano solos and piano duets and we sang solos and duets and trios. This was the gathering place for my family and it was also the gathering place for friends.
My mother accompanied all the kids that performed in high school contests so there were many times other people practiced in our home. The piano was the center of our lives.
I actually thought that we were wealthy because we had a Steinway 7-foot concert grand piano. When I was in my 40s, my mother said that we were very poor when we were growing up. That made no sense to me – I couldn’t figure out how we would have a grand piano and still be poor. My mother explained to me that when I was very, very young, my parents went to a party at the home of a rather wealthy person. He had just gotten a Steinway grand piano and he knew that my mother was a very fine pianist so he ask if she would sit down and play. She played a piece called Caprice Viennoise by Fritz Kreisler which was the piece she played in an international talent contest when she was 18 and won. He was very impressed with her playing.
About a year later his wife died unexpectedly. He called my mother and he said “you are the one who should have this piano.” Now he was not saying to her “I’m going to give you the piano” but he was saying “you are the one who should buy this piano from me because this piano should be yours.” My mother told him that there was no way they could ever have this piano. It was somewhere around 1948-1951 and the piano was $5000 at that time. He said to my mother, “I don’t care how long it takes for you to pay off this piano, this piano should be yours.”
So, my mother took the piano -naturally – and I almost think I can remember that piano being moved into our house. I was probably about three or four years old. Dad would pay off a little at a time.
One day this man’s son, who would probably have been a young teenager when his mother died, and who was now in his late teens, came knocking at our door and said to my mother, “that was supposed to be my piano.” My mother quickly invited him in and said “we have to call your father.” The father said, “Put my son on the line.” Then the father said to the son, “you may have any other piano in the world but that piano. That piano is Agnes’ piano.”
Even though I went in so many different directions in my life, the memory of the piano remained important to me. And throughout the years, I would occasionally play piano. For six years when I was in Los Angeles I had a piano duet partner and we would do three house recitals a year. But during the last 10 years I developed a movement disorder called dystonia and I was not able to play the piano because it was a strain on my neck. But as I improved, I found that I could start playing the piano again.
Last October was my 50th class reunion at Colorado College and we also decided to have a drama reunion. We had performed the musical KISMET in college and our committee said, “let’s sing the music from Kismet at our reunion.” I volunteered to accompany the group. When I got the music, I realize it was much more difficult than I had thought and I needed to practice about an hour a day between April and October to prepare.
I so enjoyed being back at the piano, that I decided to go back and take lessons. And I began to wander into piano stores. I would go to the piano store and say “this is not serious I’m just walking around” but I would try playing different pianos and see what I liked. I went to the Piano Warehouse in Colorado Springs and they had an Estonia grand piano that was a little over 6 feet which was too big for our living room. I sat down and I said “what is this piano? I’ve never heard of it. It’s beautiful.” But I was just looking and was not serious
After a few months of playing piano and taking lessons, I got to thinking more seriously about a grand piano. I asked my financial advisor if it was possible for me to think about this and he said “yes, it is. But don’t buy the Bosendorfer which is $200,000.” Thankfully, I didn’t fall in love with the Bosendorfer.
My husband said to me, “do you have to get a Steinway grand and is this all about your childhood and your mother?” and I said “I don’t think so. I think it’s about this feeling I had for the piano when I was young and it’s still there.”
But then, how does one choose the piano? To what extent is choosing a piano like falling in love? You meet a lot of different pianos, and you wait for that moment that says “this is the right one.”
There are many different tones and touches to pianos. The Steinway tends to have a very mellow and warm tone and tends to be a heavier to the touch. There are other pianos that have a lighter touch and have brilliant and bright tones as opposed to mellow tones. Over a period of September to December last year, I went to about seven piano stores and played about 50 pianos.
In December, I went to the Classic Piano Store in Denver and played about 10 more pianos and then the salesman showed me a corner of Estonia pianos. One of the pianos was two-tone – meaning it was black ebony and African wood and it was absolutely stunning. I literally stopped in my tracks because I had never seen a piano that beautiful. I sat down to play and I was instantly in love. I asked the piano salesman if he would sit down and play something on that piano. He played Claire de Lune and it was gorgeous! I then asked him to go over to one of the other pianos and play the same piece. I said “What am I Hearing? There is something about that piano that I haven’t heard before. “He explained to me that many people have the same reaction. I discovered that this was a piano company that had been under Soviet rule in Estonia but it was a very third-rate piano company. In about 2002 a very fine pianist who had worked at the factory as a youth bought the company and started to upgrade everything in the company. He got the wood from the shady side of the mountain in Germany. He got the Renner action which is the action that is used on Steinways, the Bechsteins and the very finest pianos in the world. He started adjusting various levels and brought this piano up to the level of a very fine instrument. The piano store had a 6-foot grand I had figured out the biggest piano that would fit in our living room would need to be 5’6”. They had none in stock and they were none in the United States. But they could be ordered.
I came back and told my husband about the new love in my life and he said “let’s go together”. So, we went back to Classic Piano and I played three chords on the Estonia piano at the piano store and Peter said, “I know exactly what you mean. Yes, this is terrific.”
Since the piano had to be made in Estonia, I ordered it December 23. At the end of February my new piano got on a very slow cargo ship in Estonia and went first to New York and then to Indiana and then to the Denver warehouse and then finally to the piano store where it got tuned.
On April 20 they delivered it to our home.
Meanwhile in this long search for the piano and taking piano lessons I got to thinking about that piece of music that my mother had played in the international talent contest and that had been the motivation for her getting our Steinway grand piano. Caprice Viennois. I decided to order it, thinking that it might take me about three years to be able to play it. I got it in January and started slowly practicing. I’ve now performed the piece several times. It’s difficult and lush and I’m thrilled that I am able to play out – although it’s still a work in progress.
Then I started thinking about piano duets. I loved playing piano duets!
I asked my piano teacher, Abe Minzer, if he knew of someone who might want to play duets with me. He emailed three different students, all of whom were around my same level and all three of them said “yes.” Then several others expressed interest as well and suddenly I had five duet partners. Abe called me the queen of duets.
Most piano playing is a very solitary art form – you practice the music by yourself and you might occasionally play in a recital and maybe you talk to some of the other people at the recital but you don’t have a community in the same way as if you were doing chamber music or were part of an orchestra. But then I got to thinking not just about duets but two piano duets. So, we decided to keep our old Baldwin spinet and to start doing two-piano eight-hand duets. We started to form a kind of a community. We began to be friends. Sometimes after practice I would have pizza or have my duet partners over to dinner. I began to feel like I had entered this new art form and that it had its own vocabulary, its own expression and attracted its own specific types of people. I began doing piano house recitals. We had one on June 10 and had six different people play, including the piano salesman from Denver.
I’m going to have a lady’s recital on August 26 to celebrate my birthday. I’m aware of this new chapter in my life opening up and of this new and very special love relationship that happens between a person and a piano.