One of the major regrets of my life is not having learnt to play the piano at a young age. I miss not being able to just go up to a keyboard and accompany someone or myself singing a popular song. I can work out harmonies and chord progressions but would love to be able to do so with more fluency.
When I was growing up, through a combination of circumstance and design, I guess I gravitated towards the violin. My father had learnt violin when he was young from names we utter in hushed tones today: Micael Martins and Dominic Pereira. So perhaps this played some part in the choice. Piano was not really an option. Neither of my parents played it. It was not being taught in my immediate neighbourhood. Furthermore, we didn’t own a piano, and there weren’t stores where one could peer through a shop window at a piano and say “I’d like to try that!” Wherever there were pianos in houses we visited, they seemed to be heirlooms from another generation, and often didn’t get played very much. And I assumed that an instrument that formidable and weighty would probably cost a fortune. They probably did, for us, in the 1970s, if one took into account the cost of shipping and handling.
It was also the time of the keyboard synthesizer boom and the sound world that came along with it, that gradually, inexorably replaced the acoustic unplugged sound of music-making. I remember how it replaced the pedal organ in the choir loft of our chapel. But thankfully I also had recourse to my dad’s collection of classical music records and spool tapes, and there were the excellent concerts organised by Cultura at Instituto Menezes Braganza. The names are a blur, but I still remember Anton Kuerti, Marina Horak, Edith Fischer, Klaus Zoll, and, Theresa Halloween, Tehmie Gazdar and Fali Pavri. So while I listened to Klaus Wunderlich, and the sound of the Hammond, Moog, Korg and Roland synthesizers, it was the possibilities of the acoustic piano that really “floated my boat”. Concerts I began to attend in Mumbai only further whetted my appetite, and the decade I spent in London really rocked my world for classical music in every sense, including piano.
Yet somehow piano ownership eluded me. In the early 2000s, while in the UK, I seriously considered taking a side-step from mainstream medicine into music therapy. However, all the centres in the UK offering it insisted on a significant level of accomplishment at the keyboard. By now, I was earning enough to afford a piano, but my job rotations every six to twelve months from one shoe-box to another made it impractical to have to keep carting it along with me. So I reluctantly settled for a lighter, more practical keyboard, a Yamaha Portable Grand DGX 500, and began taking lessons. It was difficult to find the time for lessons and practice with my hectic work schedules, first in hospital medicine, and then in General Practice, and with my violin lessons and orchestra rehearsals and chamber music sessions. Yet I persevered.
But it just wasn’t the same. The touch was different, the pedals felt wrong in more ways than one, and the sound was just too tinny to deign to compare itself with the real thing. But when we moved back to Goa, the keyboard came along too. And when my son began to explore the keyboard and began lessons, I realised it was time.
I talked to Christopher Gomes of Furtados Music about it, and last Christmas he let me know about a seriously good offer on a Steiner upright. This was it then! I began to have some last-minute doubts, as I do over any large purchase: what if my then five-year old’s interest in playing was just a passing phase? Would I really get that much use out of the instrument as I would like? In an old house, one is constantly battling the elements: heat, dust, light, moisture and more. Would a piano become another white (and black) elephant?
That same day, magically, an article from cyberspace surfaced on my screen which clinched it for me. It was in the Classical Music section of London’s Guardian newspaper. The article quoted world-renowned teacher and chairperson and artistic director of the Leeds International Piano Competition Dame Fanny Waterman as saying how she feared for the future of piano-playing in the UK, and one major contributor was the popularity of keyboards over acoustic pianos, and children starting to learn at a later age than in many other parts of the world.
She didn’t mince her words, stating that learning on an electric piano was “a waste of time, because you don’t get the speed of the key descent, you don’t get the different sounds.” Electric keyboards are “big business”, she said, likening them to playing the violin but studying the guitar – “different sound altogether”. Strong words, and the article kicked up quite a storm in the comments section and in the music world beyond it. But it strengthened my resolve to get myself a ‘real’ piano at last. If I want to give my son a real chance at learning to play the piano, he has at the very least to have the right instrument. What happens thereafter, whether he takes to it or not, is not entirely within my control. But this is. Thankfully he really seems to enjoy it. And I’ve taken it up again as well.
And so, I have entered a whole new world. I’ve never owned an acoustic instrument that was as large as furniture before. Or that was not portable, something I could carry with me on public transport. Or that required the use of my feet as well as my hands. Tuning it is not a do-it-yourself task like my violin or viola. I’m having to come to grips with the idea of piano tuners and dehumidifiers. But I’m grateful. Strike one off the bucket list.
(An edited version of this article was published on 24 May 2015 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)