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An Unexpected Piano Lesson

The problems of an aging instrument offer a tutorial in the key of life


Part of the Aging Well Through Arts Special Report

My piano is making me ridiculously happy these days.

The feeling comes after years of mounting frustration as the instrument took to slipping out of tune faster and faster. Each time Albert, my tuner, arrived to remedy the situation, I wondered what I would do if the damage proved irreparable. This particular Yamaha upright has been my companion for 40 years — one of the longest relationships in my life.

Through most of those years, the piano participated stalwartly in the kind of uneven friendship you may recognize if you have a clarinet or cello stashed in a closet. While the piano’s affection held steady, always ready to engage, I offered a fickle heart, ruthlessly ignoring it for months on end. Then, suddenly struck by an urge to play, I’d trot out my yellowing books of Hanon exercises and Bach Inventions. (Talk about old friends. The cover price on that Hanon book is $2.00. Today, the book sells for $7.99.)

Worrying About an Old Friend’s Health

Each time I capriciously returned to the keyboard, the result was not easy on the ears. Clumsy fingers, lots of wrong notes. But the piano? I could always rely on it to sound great, a gift that I took for granted.

It never occurred to me that there might come a day when my readiness to play would not be met by my piano’s readiness to be played.

So, when the lower register started producing noises even more dreadful than my playing, I expected that with a turn of this, a tweak of that, all would be harmonious again. It never occurred to me that there might come a day when my readiness to play would not be met by my piano’s readiness to be played.

Eventually, the lower register settled into flat, tinny sounds that rendered the instrument unplayable. Granted, I’ve never been destined for Carnegie Hall. But this was a level of audial awfulness that owed nothing to my modest skills. Albert and I agreed that the time had come to fill the cracks in the piano’s pinblock, an expensive two-day operation that, among other things, required tipping the upright on its back. Inconstant though my heart may be, it was disconcerting to see my old friend literally laid out flat.

When Albert finished, I approached the keyboard with the same sort of tentativeness I felt after various loved ones’ assorted surgeries. Yes, it was encouraging to see the piano upright again; but would the cure last? Four weeks later, I continue to approach the keyboard gingerly, tensing as I wait to hear what the A below middle C (the worst offender) will offer when I bear down. Each time the tone emerges pure and on-key, I’m flooded with giddy relief.

What We Take For Granted

The other day as I was torturing a Gershwin prelude, my mind began wandering in search of other instances where something I’d taken for granted brought me up short. Three things immediately came to mind.

The first was a rudimentary exercise: descending a flight of stairs. I’d never given the act a passing thought until I missed a step two years ago and tumbled, a spectacular bit of carelessness that snapped the fifth metatarsal in my left foot. Weeks of clunking around in a cumbersome boot and hobbling along on an annoying cane left me disinclined to take my agility on stairs for granted. The painstaking rehab that followed revived my appreciation for the ABC’s of navigating steps. It also left a lingering mindfulness. To this day, every time I descend that particular stairwell, I reach for the rail and feel grateful for my restored mobility.

A phone call from an old college friend triggered a similar wave of gratitude. This friend, a die-hard New Yorker, shockingly moved to the West Coast several years ago. Though we stayed in touch, it wasn’t the same. How could it be when we were never in the same place at the same time? Recently, she called to tell me that she’s moving back East, a message that left me smiling for days. I don’t know how long this renewed access to one another will last, but one thing I do know: this go-round, I won’t take her proximity for granted.

Then there’s been the disruption of life’s most basic assumption: that the people we kiss goodnight will be there to greet us in the morning. For me, that blithe assumption was disrupted by the loss, in rapid succession, of my (first) husband, my only sister, my mother and my mother-in-law. Their battles with illness, then their deaths, heightened my awareness that soon is an act of optimism; that now is the only guarantee we have.

Living in the Now

In the seven years since the last of those burials, that awareness has proved — intermittently — enduring. Many days, I plow through as I habitually have, assuming that my car will start, that a friend will meet me as planned for lunch, that come 6:30 p.m., my (second) husband and I will watch the evening news. But on my best days, which is to say my most mindful ones, I experience an acute sense of now-ness. And with that comes a feeling of intense gratitude for the people who are here with me, loving me and letting me love them.

As I played the Gershwin piece, it occurred to me that those deep feelings of appreciation are a gift, but one that comes only with time. Profound gratitude, I realized, is like a fine wine; it requires aging. The more life’s challenges and vicissitudes accumulate, the less we take for granted. We wake up to what we have, here, today. Aging also persistently reminds that nothing is permanent. We wake up to what may no longer be here tomorrow. As a result, our gratitude for what we have, right here, right now, deepens.

With that thought, I opened a different piano book and began to play David Lanz’s Circle of Friends. I didn’t play it particularly well. But as I caressed the keys of my 40-year-old friend, I played it with great heart.

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Jill Smolowe
By Jill Smolowe
Jill Smolowe is the author of Four Funerals and a Wedding: Resilience in a Time of Grief. To learn more about her book and her grief and divorce coaching, visit www.jillsmolowe.com.

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