Music Love. Friendships. Character. Gifts from love of music. “Piano Shop on the Left Bank” by Thad Carhart (Oct. 2008)

Susan's Thursday morning note October 2, 2008   
The Piano Shop on the Left Bank by Thad Carhart

Good morning!     I was able to read the last few weeks another book that was ordered by one of you, that I peeked into before shipping it off – and had to order for us.  The Piano Shop on the Left Bank by Thad Carhart.  The setting is a small Paris piano shop where the author spends his time in the back of the shop observing and learning about the complexities and beauty of pianos. 

The book is interesting from the very beginning, capturing the moods, the characters, the beauty of music – all behind the curtains behind a small counter in Paris.  If you love music (regardless your instrument of choice being a piano) you will enjoy this book, for the love of music, the details of instruments, the love behind the eyes of those that work on the instruments (building, repairing, tuning, purchasing, playing, loving) are so easy to picture yourself in the scenes. 

I now desire to get on my keyboard (embarrassed now that I am in the contemporary keyboards, without having to lift the “lid” and see the ivory keys, to have to understand the tuning, the history…wishing I was in the era 50 years ago with the ability to lift the back of the piano and see the keys and the strings and the mallet and the felt – see it all in it’s complexity.  Why didn’t I open that back more often?    It seems like only when we were searching for a mouse, or when we dropped a penny…shoot – wish I’d have paid more attention!)

Below are just a few of the lines I underlined.  This book is too full of characters, incidents, and descriptions for me to even try – but I do know that if you are, or have music lover in your family or friends – this is a treasure they would love to receive from you with a card.

On author entering the piano repair shop for the first time…Around the edges of the room, behind & around and even under the pianos, in every available corner, lay scattered parts and pieces that had been removed form them.  The legs of the grand pianos lay alongside, an anthology of furniture styles stacked high in a pile.  Music stands, pedal housings, fall boards were all similarly grouped together, each one reflecting a different era and style…benches and stools, tuning pins and strings, even a pile of old metronomes, their blunt little pyramids a mass of wooden stalagmites.

Owner of the shop, Luc…His attitude about how people treated their pianos seemed to mirror his philosophy of life.  While regretting the depredations worked by children on keyboards and strings, he regarded them as tolerable because the piano was at least used and, as he put it, “au sein de la famille” (“at the heart of the family”).  It was more than just any piece of furniture, but it was that, too, and if drinks were spilled and stains bit into shiny finishes, it was the price one paid for initiating the young to a joy that should stem from familiarity rather than reverence.  His contempt (for those that only used great instruments to display wealth and musical pretensions) was accompanied by a kind of sadness for the piano itself whose fate was to remain unplayed.  “It’s like a great conversationalist who is put in solitary confinement…the piano could suffer a kind of death, even though it was wholly intact and technically maintained.

The piano became a kind of flying carpet by which I could travel to an entirely different place, and I would leave the room with the half-dazed sensibility that children sometimes show when they have discovered a new and agreeable and utterly private world of their own.

…I bought this from a fine gentleman just yesterday…  He used to play very old tangos very badly.” He paused, then added, “But it gave him a lot of pleasure.” I soon learned that this, coming from Luc, was the supreme compliment.  If someone had ‘beaucoup de caractere’ and took pleasure in making music, no praise was too great.

…The keys felt cool and slightly irregular beneath my fingers, their surfaces worn by years of playing, and I wondered what I always wondered as I touched the broad expanse of aged ivory: who had played this piano and where, and what music had they made?

Interesting facts from the chapter “How It Works”…Press key, hear sound: the fundaments are simple but the particulars very quickly become complicated.  The moving part that we see, the part that we touch when we are playing, is the key.  Modern pianos have 88 of them arrayed as “naturals” (the whites) and “accidentals” (the blacks) across 7 1/3 octaves of the Western diatonic scale…Each key – a refined lever, really – is connected to more than 30 moving parts that are intricately designed and assembled to ensure that the motion is uniform.  The force with which the player presses the key is directly related to the speed with which the felt-covered hammer strikes the string and this in turn determines the volume of the sound produced…When the key sets the hammer in motion it strikes a string stretched with great tension between two points.  The vibrations of the string – from 30 cycles per second at the low end to 4000 cycles per second at the top of the treble – produce a tone that corresponds to that particular note.  This, too, is more complicated that it at first appears.  The hammer in fact usually hits more than one string, for while there are 88 keys on the modern piano there are more than 200 strings…Aside from the number of strings, a few underlying mechanical principles must also be taken into account.  The length of the string, the higher the note.  This chapter goes on and on with fascinating facts.  I didn’t realize how little I knew from something that I have been “family” with all my life.  He discusses the wood chosen, the strings, what makes the wood sing and what makes it come to life.

On author’s friendship which developed over time with the shop owner…I enjoyed the slow unfolding of a friendship where, beyond our conversations about the pianos in the shop, certain things were tacitly understood.  Luc and I virtually never asked about each other’s personal lives, although details occasionally came out as we talked.  This was understood as respect rather than lack of interest, a sometimes surprising notion for an American used to the rapid divulging of facts and the urgent expectation of intimacy in new relationships.  The pace was different in the atelier and I learned to give things time.

I also read a paragraph in Firstlight by Sue Monk Kidd this week that has stayed in my mind.  I can’t resist writing the dialogue out for you between Lucy and Charlie Brown on life.  I don’t have the book in front of me – but here is my paraphrase…Lucy & Charlie Brown were discussing the actions of travelers as they ride a cruise ship.  Some take their lounge chairs and head to the back of the boat – watching and thinking about where they’ve been on their voyage.  Others take their lounge chairs to the front of the boat and spend their time imagining and dreaming and planning where they are heading.  Lucy then asked Charlie what type of passenger was he?    He responded that he had no idea – he couldn’t even get his lounge chair open.  So much we could take from that.

Are we looking to the future – to who we could be if we accept where we are now?    Are we only looking at where we’ve been, at what we wish, at what is no longer our reality?    What possibilities do we have, what opportunities, friendships, learning, solitude, music could we hear if we begin to look at our possibilities rather than our past or what is not possible in our daily life?    What are we missing out on by not letting go, letting be, accepting, changing, making our goal of finding God in our souls, in our private souls. 

Where could we be if that became our greatest desire?    How much more would we see God in little things?    In creation.  In friendships.  In children.  In marriage.  In music.  Changing the desire of our heart to be tangible, to desire what we think would make our lives enriched?    When we could just stop.  Be still.  “Be still and know that I am God.” All else is peripheral.  I want to step heavenward.  To have my goal to becoming so close to knowing God that if I died, there would only be a step into his presence, for I am already stepping forward.  Towards where “my boat is going”. 

Go take on your day.  Begin.  Just begin.  Be who you always thought you could be.  Make decisions that make you proud, without caring if anyone else knows your decisions.  My goal.  But I must daily think about that or I forget.  How short are my goals.  Give me 10 minutes and I’ll probably do something I regret all day.  Reality!     Thank you so much for letting me be in your Thursdays.  I can only hope that what I write you we all can learn from.  Have a great weekend.  It doesn’t get more beautiful than this!   Susan


Latin This Week:
"Musica Donum Dei" - Music is a Gift from God.  
Works Cited: Carhart, Thad.  The Piano Shop on the Left Bank: Discovering a Forgotten Passion in a Paris Atelier.  New York.  Random House.  2000. Kidd, Sue Monk.  Firstlight: The Early Inspirational Writings.  New York.  Penguin Putnam.  2006.