There is an old proverb that goes “Play the piano daily and stay sane.” For me, the main word of this proverb is daily. Playing the piano daily means inevitable accomplishment, and, without a sense of accomplishment, life is an impoverished journey.

Machines have taken us away from our hands. In his last days, Rachmaninoff continually practiced a composition he never performed. One of his last statements was: “Farewell, my dear hands.” Today, we are starved for a deep contact with our hands. The poet Edward Dahlberg felt “our hands are already very stupid and morose. What can we do with them? What do we do with them?” Let’s get back to our hands—they are craving good work. At one time, the terms “handmade” and “handcrafted” meant a great deal. In schools, the young are no longer taught to write in script. Handwriting provided the first glimpse of individuality. What a thrill to see our beloved’s handwriting in a letter. And what of drawing, once an essential form of education? Painting and drawing are no longer common practice. Goethe, sickened by the Babel of words, counseled, “Let us draw, instead of talk.”

There is wisdom, so I say, let us play the piano. Non-verbal music reaches into the depths of the unconscious. There is nothing so satisfactory for our hands—physically, sensuously, and artistically—as playing the piano. Nothing compares to the satisfaction of playing a small piece of Bach or Schumann. If you can’t play a Bach invention perfectly, or even imperfectly, try to do it, and you will come to agree with me. The path to such an achievement asks for focus, discipline, attention, a delicate sense of touch, musical feeling, and more. Good practicing is meditation without the mantra. When you commune with Bach or Schubert, you can reach the heights of Mount Parnassus, where the atmosphere is rarified.

Almost everyone is musical. Music is an actual bodily need. Another saying goes “If something is worth doing, it is worth doing well,” but I disagree. Like Chesterton, I feel that if something is worth doing, it is worth doing even badly. Playing the piano is not something to be graded. Adults should take it up the moment they feel the need to play music. As a matter of course, children should be given lessons without pressure. Playing the piano should be an act without material value. It must be a road of discovery, a trackless territory, and never a means of showing off. The piano won’t serve the ego’s craving for recognition.

When I was a student, I had an adult who studied with me. The man was gifted in a number of ways. He took his lessons seriously and worked hard. After about two years, when he thought he had mastered a group of compositions, he could not resist showing off. He rented a small hall and a Steinway and invited a large group of friends. I told him that this was a mistake, as he had no idea what kind of super-mastery was needed to play in public. He was a self-absorbed, flamboyant character who thought he could pull it off with his usual flair, as he did with his acting and dancing.

In the green room before the little concert, he was stunned to find his legs and hands shaking beyond control. Still, he went out to face his audience and made a complete fool of himself, flailing in every piece. The next day, he called me angrily, saying that he was quitting; he didn’t love the piano, he told me. I told him I thought that was a good idea. I never saw him again. His narcissism excluded the possibility of properly loving music. The piano is not only a severe taskmaster, it asks that you possess character. If you have the temerity to play publicly, you are all alone, and the way you perform and your preparation tells a great deal about who you are. In a clash of wills, the piano will always win. Robert Schumann wrote, “The hearing of masterworks of different epochs will speediest of all cure you of vanity and self-adoration.” Playing the piano teaches one much, especially humility.

The piano offers a variety of avenues for musical growth. The novelist E. M. Forster says of his own performances upon the piano that they

grow worse yearly, but never will I give them up. For one thing . . . they teach me a little bit about construction. I see what becomes of a phrase, how it is transformed or returned. . . . This gives me a physical approach . . . which cannot be gained through the slough of “appreciation.” Even when people play as badly as I do, they should continue; it will help them to listen.

To listen acutely is something that few achieve. Artur Schnabel put it bluntly, writing, “The intimacy created by listening to a piece of music (even repeatedly) is superficial compared with the result of repeated playing or even reading of the music. The aptitude for reading music as one reads words should be cultivated by everybody who is fond of music.” The fact is that, today, reading music, an elementary form of musical literacy, has become rare, and many music critics do not possess this ability.

One of the most wonderful aspects of piano playing is learning and developing the ability to sight-read (score-read). What an adventure it is! As this skill develops, all of music becomes available to the pianist. If one is really curious musically, this is the greatest of feasts. The amateur probably doesn’t have the time, patience, or even the desire to hone a piece to high technical polish. Who cares! That’s for people who play in public, those who deal with the professional and commercial apparatus of music. Over time, I have realized that the amateur who constantly sight-reads is often a more cultivated musician than the performer who slaves away polishing and shining every phrase. The fine sight-reader may not be a concert pianist, but he knows how to use a piano.

In orchestral music, good piano arrangements will bring out clearly a score’s roots. In the process of discovering them, one learns to be a conductor. Really getting to know Mahler in piano reductions gives us a real appreciation of his orchestral mastery. If opera is one’s passion, piano reductions on many levels are ideal in developing a deeper understanding of the operas of all epochs. If one is serious about internalizing the depths and complexities of Wagner’s RingCycle, there is no better way than slowly plodding through the arrangements of Karl Klindworth (an important pupil of Franz Liszt). Nothing could reveal Wagner’s stupendous mind better. All the performances on all the stages of the world cannot bring one closer to these “music-dramas” than one’s own two hands.

Another enchantment is the endless piano reductions of music for four hands, including the original duet literature itself. In Robert Musil’s classic novel The Man Without Qualities, Clarisse and Walter play four-hand piano, “unloosed like two locomotives hurtling along side by side. Seated on their small stools, they were irritated, amorous, or sad about nothing, or perhaps each of them about something separate, only the authority of the music joined them together.” During the Civil War, a Union general and his troops marched into Holly Springs, Mississippi, with the intention of destroying the little Confederate town. Looking at a beautiful mansion, the general walked in, saw a fine grand in the parlor, and began playing. Upon hearing the music, a beautiful young woman descended the long staircase. After a few minutes of conversation, the pair discovered that they had both studied in New York with the same teacher. The very next day, he again came to her home and they played duets. On taking his leave he said, “You and your piano take the credit for saving Holly Springs.”

The invention of the piano was the greatest event in the history of music. As a cultural artifact, it is peerless. Through its existence, music expanded into many unexplored regions of feeling and form.

The arts are spiritually and emotionally interconnected. Nowhere is this heard more clearly than in the song literature of the world. The piano’s developement in the last quarter of the eighteenth century was accompanied by an unprecedented burst of lyric poetry in England, Europe, and Russia. The new verse captured personal feeling through a rediscovery of the vernacular. The nineteenth-century Romantic composers were nurtured on this literature, and, from Schubert onward, dozens of them set their national poetry to voice and piano. With the piano, poetry found a new and expanded life. Such composers as Schumann, Brahms, Wolf, Liszt, Grieg, Tchaikovsky, Fauré, Debussy, Strauss, Borodin, and Rachmaninoff used the piano with an uncanny sense of description and detail. Just imagine any of these “art songs” being sung with harpsichord. It would provoke laughter.

The piano is also without equal as an artistic and social medium. It is found everywhere, from taverns to the White House, in churches and houses of ill repute. Wherever it is, it always beckons to us. One day, while visiting a nursing home, I encountered a shiny ebony grand in the cheerful sitting room. I asked the attendant if anyone played it. She responded that a few people strummed on it occasionally. Why, I asked, was the piano here? Her response told much. “Sir, the piano is here because it makes everyone happier just to see it. Most people have grown up with a piano.” Indeed, many families strove to keep up with the Joneses in purchasing this expensive object, hoping to enrich their lives with music while watching their children grapple with the magic box, being brought to beauty and culture as they progressed through the classic purity of Clementi’s time-honored sonatinas.

The piano represents a sense of continuity which lives on today in dozens of subtle ways. Discarding a piano feels so sacrilegious. Recently, I saw an old upright degraded on the street. I looked at it wistfully, knowing there is still a lot of music in those old keys. While I was standing there, others also stopped, looking sadly at the lonely instrument. One woman exclaimed, “How can anyone throw a piano away? A child should have it to begin piano lessons.”

Emerson wrote: “’Tis wonderful to see how quickly a piano gets into a log-hut.” When Oscar Wilde made his lecture tour in the wild and woolly mining towns of the American west, he was touched when he saw on the wall of a saloon a big sign reading “Don’t shoot the piano player, he is doing his best.” Growing up in Texarkana, Texas, Scott Joplin was taught the piano for pennies by one of the many poor immigrant musicians pouring into the United States. In Joplin’s case, his teacher was a German Jew. Later, the creator of classic ragtime made his living by playing on uprights in the brothel parlors of the Missouri Valley region. Those rickety instruments spawned a generation of African-American ragtime virtuosi. When a client entered, the working girls hallooed for the professor to set the mood for their daily (and nightly) labors.

Alas, there are too many pianos that go unplayed. The world has changed drastically since the days when the piano was the centerpiece of a home. Few people now play instruments other than their CD players or iPods. Silence doesn’t exist. Homes are flooded with the odious noises of television. The internet has robbed us of time and life itself, becoming the world’s major addiction.

Once parents bought a piano to give their children the “finer things in life”—a middle-class phrase that now sounds quaint. George Gershwin, living a rough-and-tumble life on the streets of New York City, would say: “The piano made a good boy out of a bad one.” The moment he had heard Anton Rubinstein’s Melody in F played at a penny arcade, he was mesmerized. A piano would never leave his sight. Today, the piano is seldom in the living room. Children now play video games instead of Mozart.

We can no longer quite grasp what the piano meant to society in its heyday just before World War I. The instrument was almost deified while a mighty race of piano virtuosi round the world played the classics. Paderewski and many others were celebrities of the first magnitude. At the height of piano production in 1911, 310 piano manufacturers produced 376,000 pianos in the United States alone. It was no coincidence that 1911 was also the peak year for immigrants streaming into the country.

In 1915, Irving Berlin, who grew up with his piano, wrote the song “I Love a Piano.” Popular music was changing American culture just as was Henry Ford’s Model T automobile. Years after “I Love a Piano” was composed, Judy Garland sang it with Fred Astaire at the upright in the movie Easter Parade. The song is a delight:

I love a piano, I love a piano.
I love to hear somebody play
Upon a piano, a grand piano.
It simply carries me away.
I know a fine way to treat a Steinway.
I love to run my fingers o’er the keys, the ivories.
And with the pedal I love to meddle,
When Paderewski comes this way.
I’m so delighted if I’m invited
To hear a long-haired genius play.
So you can keep your fiddle and your bow
Give me a p-i-a-n-o, oh, oh,
I love to stop right beside an upright
Or a high-toned baby grand.

By the time World War I had started, however, phonograph sales pulled ahead of piano sales for the first time, and piano sales began to decline. Consumer culture was replacing the do-it-yourself ethic. When the Great Depression hit, the piano industry was a fragment of its former, glorious self. From hundreds of firms of piano-builders, only three dozen or so survived.

Once a house could not be considered a home without its piano. The psychological warmth of the piano in the parlor had a profound effect on family life, which was now beginning to slowly deteriorate. I am amused by present-day politicians who mourn the death of what they call “family values.” I would tell them to call for the return of the piano in the home. Before the endless proliferation of canned music, mothers played for family and friends a variety of music, from hymns to sentimental popular songs, while feet moved to the current dance craze, and many a romance began near a piano. There may even have been flashes of radiant beauty when mother played the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata. D. H. Lawrence describes almost unbearable nostalgia for a mother playing to her child in his magnificent poem “Piano”:

The piano still exudes an aura of allure and romance. I was delighted with Joe Queenan’s 2009 essay in TheNew York Times Book Review, “Play It Again. And Again.” He wrote,

For the past few years, whenever I’ve found myself down in the dumps, I have turned to books that contain the word “piano” in the title. Immediately, the dark clouds fade. . . . The very fact that I am reading a book that has something to do with the glorious old 88s invariably lifts me out of the engulfing gloom.
Perhaps this is because of the elegance and majesty of the instrument itself, or because the very word “piano” is reassuringly beautiful. Or perhaps it is because I, like so many other baby boomers, have long dreamed of playing the piano but have had to settle for being able to strum a few primitive Neil Young songs on the guitar. Whatever the reason, “piano” is evocative in a way no other word for a musical instrument is. I do not get the same emotional payoff when I read Come Blow Your Horn, The Advancing Clarinetist, Drums Along the Mohawk, The Tin Drum, The Cello Player, The Vanishing Violin, The Little Drummer Girl, The Soloist, Gideon’s Trumpet, Young Man With a Horn or even Corelli’s Mandolin. The word “piano” itself possesses an ethereal charm that the nomenclature for other musical instruments lacks. Words like “harp,” “English horn” and even “viola da gamba” do nothing for me. Literature pertaining to the banjo or the flugelhorn isn’t even in the ballpark. And just forget about books like Accordion Crimes. The accordion is a crime.

My least favorite name for an instrument is “organ.” But the name is not the thing, and the central fact is that Beethoven did not compose his thirty-two sonatas for the bassoon. This greatest celebration of music could only have been created for the piano, or if you prefer, the pianoforte—it can, after all, play very loud indeed. Truly, the piano is “the king of instruments.”

Writing in 1946, the art historian Bernard Berenson noted that “man seems to have begun as an artist and only in the last hundred years has he succeeded in emancipating himself from art completely, exchanging the possible Phidias in him for a Ford.” In the intervening years, the population has become greatly alienated from art. Fewer and fewer know who Phidias was. When did you last meet a sculptor? In his 1897 novel The Nigger of the ’Narcissus,’Joseph Conrad writes of the artist who “binds men to each other, which binds together all humanity—the dead to the living and the living to the unborn.”

All of us, consciously or not, crave art. The novelist Jeanette Winterson wrote,

Art is central to all our lives, not just the better-off and educated. I know that from my own story, and from the evidence of every child ever born—they all want to hear and to tell stories, to sing, to make music, to act out little dramas, to paint pictures, to make sculptures. This is born in and we breed it out. And then, when we have bred it out, we say that art is elitist, and at the same time we either fetishize art—the high prices, the jargon, the inaccessibility—or we ignore it. The truth is, artists or not, we are all born on the creative continuum, and that is a heritage and a birthright of all of our lives.

Almost everyone who played the piano as a child and quit wishes they had stuck with it. But the present is here. Take charge. Go to concerts. Buy recordings. The great pianists each have different traits beyond their own specific tone. Rubinstein’s noble simplicity, Horowitz’s eroticism, Lipatti’s purity and elegance, Gieseking’s lavish color wheel, Kapell’s scalding temperament, Cortot’s visionary imagination, and Gould’s asceticism are waiting to be revealed to you.

The piano recital is still a singular and exciting event. Keyboard virtuosity in itself remains a glamorous thing: the nimble muscularity of scales and arpeggios dashing down and cascading up the keyboard; octaves coruscating through the great concertos; the lid of the grand opened, the feet quivering on the pedals—the sheer danger of it all is breathtaking. And is there anything more rewarding than mastering a Bach fugue or conquering the exhilarating pitfalls in one of Liszt’s transcendental etudes?

The piano is a shrine to the human spirit, an instrument so perfect that it has permeated the lives of the great composers. In its literature are compositions for every level of attainment. It is said that in China thirty million people study the piano. That’s quite a good start. Let’s go country by country. I actually believe that playing the piano may save the world. But forget about the world and save yourself.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 30 Number 6, on page 17
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