85 keys

Last week, for the first time, I encountered a piano with only 85 keys. The standard, of course, is 88, but this instrument was missing a few at the top.

Last week my friend Dr. Julia came to town to visit her family and to do one last performance of the recital we put together last year. Our venue was a local unitarian church, famous because its building is a Frank Lloyd Wright design. They have regular concerts every Friday at noon, and we got booked for last week. The program was a shortened version of the recital we did in Wisconsin, Kansas and Florida last year, only this time something special was added - a piece written just for us by a colleague of Julia's. The piece wasn't finished for any of our performances last year, and as a matter of fact, after he heard us perform, the composer rewrote the piano part to be longer and much more difficult. Thanks, dude.

Truly, I did take that rewrite as a compliment. But learning it was a bitch. It's a short song, but there is a devilish solo piano interlude in the middle that took me weeks to learn. The text is an Emily Dickinson poem, and this solo interlude evokes swarms of blackbirds against the backdrop of the poet's anxiety about the desolation of winter, and by extension, her anxiety about death. At least, that's how I interpreted it. It's fast and anxious and there are a lot of notes way up high on the piano. In fact, the climax of the whole thing goes all the way up to the tippy top of the keyboard in a ferocious, fortissimo swirl of sixteenth notes and jagged rests.

Alas, I did not discover the key shortage on this particular piano until the dress rehearsal when my right hand suddenly struck the hard, black wood of the piano's frame instead of the high C and B-flat that I needed. "Julia, there's a problem," I announced when we finished running through it, and I showed her how this piano, this lovely instrument with a beautiful sound and an elaborately carved music stand, simply stopped at the high A. It had only 85 keys instead of the standard 88. I only needed those high notes for one measure - one rather crucial measure, to be sure, but still, it was only one. There was nothing for it but to just make due and take some small comfort knowing the audience wouldn't know the difference anyway. Mostly, it was disappointing knowing that the first performance of this piece would be on an instrument that didn't have enough keys to play the notes as written.

Strange things happen in performance sometimes. I remember when I was on tour with Opera for the Young, we once left a rather critical piece of the pirate ship at a school in Beloit and had to begin The Pirates of Penzance with our student chorus holding up the sides of their pirate ship like an ill-fitting skirt. I've covered for many a singer's memory slip and chased errant loose pages of music across a stage. When I was a sophomore in high school, I was in the marching band and once my pants fell down in the middle of our routine. Shrug. Stuff just happens.


Jesse Graber said…
Have you been to the National Music Museum in Vermillion, South Dakota? It's the most amazing place, rooms and rooms of new and old odd instruments and frankensteined music making devices. They have several pianos from before the standard layout of keys was agreed upon. I don't know why it's in SD.
Jessi said…
That's really fascinating. I wonder how many pieces would utilize those last three keys? I wouldn't imagine many, but you know, me and music, not on the best terms.

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