Piano Lessons

My mother rescued this piano from an abandoned farmhouse on the ranch she was working for near Hearst Castle.  When a date was set to burn the structure, her love of all things musical got the better of her and she moved it into her cottage on the beach and my brother  began refinishing the 90-ish year old woodwork.  It soon proved a bigger project than planned and the restoration stopped.  A tuner was called, and it was put into passable key.  Mother played it occasionally, but mainly it was a child’s play instrument.  When I began homeschooling, I decided the piano could be better used by my budding musicians.  With a lot of trouble, we moved it to my central California home.  It came with us again when we moved to the Bay Area, and then was hauled to Las Vegas.  By this time, it was so hopelessly out of tune the children didn’t enjoy playing with it, and no one had taken any serious interest in actually making music.  My tuner did his best to find its key, but the overall tone was a bit sharp and sounded very reminiscent of a barroom player.  He suggested that as soon as the kids were done banging out their lessons, it should be replaced with a real piano.  It really wasn’t a quality piece, and it would cost more to restore than it was worth.

It has now been 13 years that piano has been in my home.  Other than the few lessons I completed before my video course was lost in a move, it has never been more than furniture and none of us has developed any proficiency.  I desperately needed the space it took up in the study, but it was too heavy to move out by ourselves.  One night, the idea surfaced to reclaim the wood.  With no further discussion, we began dismantling and four hours later it was in pieces and we realized that what we thought was lovely mahogany was actually well-stained pine.

But that was the best four or so hours our family has spent in a long time.  All of us learned how a piano is put together, how each piece works (or was supposed to.)  We discovered why certain keys no longer played and why others wouldn’t hold a tune.  We figured out the action of the keys and pedals and how they returned to position after striking a note.   We were amazed at the power of the sound itself when released from the wood case; certain tones would vibrate the concrete slab under our feet.

What books and curricula would I have had to collect to teach what we learned that night?  ‘Dynamics of Sound’ is not a common course.  We saw how the keys were shaped to fit the space designated to a keyboard while hitting the appropriate string, which had to fit in its allotted space, as well as the mechanics between the two to make sure the key did not rest on and deaden the sound but came back up to its original position immediately for repeated use.  Then there was the industrial technology to not only design that huge iron plate in the back, but then forge it in one integral piece.  We saw so much thought incorporated into each piece we pulled out.  Every screw had been fitted with a felt sleeve; five specialized screws were in the back, in a definite pattern, with extra thick felt.  Was that to deaden excessive wood rattle?  We don’t know for sure.

We spent quite a bit of time plucking or striking individual strings to just experience the sound.   We ran our fingers and other items up and down the strings to develop harp-like or violin-ish sounds.  The boys discovered that rapping the bass strings firmly caused a reverberation that was infinitely fun.  Everyone, from the preschooler to myself, was fascinated with what intricacies our old friend had hidden away.  While I personally didn’t disassemble a single thing, I have well over 200 photos of the process.

Now to record our findings, but under what course heading?  Technology?  Science?  Music?  Woodworking?  Math?  Language?  My husband has talked for years about how he loves Russian music for all the emotion it conveys; the children found that which strings they touched and how did, indeed, affect their emotions.  Some were comforting and others rattled our very souls.  My oldest finally put his huge hand across the strings when he was working on top and the younger ones were using the bass strings like percussion instruments.  It was a fascinating sound, but his hearing approaches sonar levels and he’d been feeling the sound through his chest for too long.   A few minutes later, though, he was gently dragging his screwdriver handle along the midrange strings and creating some very soothing, electric guitar sounding rhythms.

These are the moments where homeschooling shines; such unteachable, highly educational experiences which exude much more than my logbook can explain.  And maybe – just maybe – one of my students will finally be inspired to take up an instrument for mastery.  While a new keyboard has replaced the relic, we already miss its character, which added so much to our decor.  Nonetheless,  books are already stacked, awaiting the new bookcase which will take that space against the wall.




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