Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Middlebury Pianist's Plight

NESCAC*-world problems
It is a Middlebury mid-afternoon, and the hour is ripe for practicing. Yet yearning yelps of young pianists fill the air as they are confronted with the inaccessibility of pianos. It is difficult enough to find time for practice, then to have that time eaten up by a lengthy commute to the Mahaney Center, only to discover all practice rooms in use; by jimmying the locks of Sunderland’s basement and Wright Theatre’s corner room before ducking into Mead Chapel, only to find the Steinway removed from the stage. Like hunters, pianists sniff out the likelihood of another pianist occupying their intended instrument, and pounce on practice rooms at obscure hours. Certain second-year students testify to practicing up to 60% less than they did prior to arriving at Middlebury, mostly because of piano inaccessibility. Middleburians seek not only to maintain their skills, but also to increase and refine them; why must pianists in particular face such geographical opposition to this simple aim? Indeed, every other building houses an instrument -- but a mere handful are in tune and practice-able (meaning that the keys put up more resistance than laptop keyboards). To combat these musically-dismal conditions, Middlebury College treasurers ought to bestow upon Battell a Yamaha upright piano -- a modest investment that promises returns to musical devotees, dilettantes, and dissidents alike. 

Of all locations needing musical medication, Battell presents the most exigent case. Wonnacott Commons’ affiliation with the first-year seminar “Piano, Piano: A Cultural History of the Piano” results in a greater proportion of piano-enthusiasts residing in Battell. Naturally, a course that explores the piano’s social sonorities would attract students with backgrounds in piano-playing, or at least a love of music-making. The only piano my fellow classmates have in close proximity is the well-loved (shabby) sound-box in the well-worn (beat-up) basement. How are these students to observe the object of their studies in action? First-hand experience trumps all other teaching techniques; as Confucius said with much oomph, “I hear, I forget. I see, I remember. I do, I understand." If students of the piano’s cultural history had direct access to a better instrument, they could test out concepts gathered during discussion for themselves, ingraining ideas in as personal a way as possible. Practicing is the best way for students of the piano -- either of itself or its impact -- to study.

The aforementioned in-class discussions inspire its participants to play the piano; alas, Battel’s current instrument -- which produces more noise than sound -- mutes these musings. One of my classmates, a self-taught musician especially enamored with the curriculum, serves as a prime example. From the library, he borrowed a score of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 14 (“Moonlight”) and copied down each note by hand so that he could keep it. He proceeded to plink away at whatever piano he could scrounge, usually the one in the Battell’s basement. So out-of-tune, laggy, and and quaggy was the instrument that my classmate’s rendition of “Moonlight” bore discouragingly little aural resemblance to the piece itself. He has since abandoned the project. If seminars inspire such passion for their subject, then the basic resources for further study ought to be provided by the Commons, a system that encourages pursuit of “Scientia et Virtus,” or conjoined learning and living.

Indeed, a decent piano serves as a learning-medium for all residents of Battell, not only its musicians. At the very least, an instrument must be in tune, for fear that Commons members be driven insane by offset frequencies and their coursework suffer. Of course, an easy tune-up resolves intonation issues, yielding a functional, well-tempered keyboard. There is no simpler face-lift for the destitute instrument. However, even with its pitches freshly aligned, an instrument’s timbre determines its sound quality. The piano in Battell’s basement has a metallic twang: a rickety, hoary sort of voice with the powers to revert tuned pitches back to their untuned state. Also, for piano-players, the correct pitches represent at most 1% of the entire enchilada; what really interests them are the subtleties behind each note: the required touch, attack, articulation, and color; among other ingredients. Sound-making button-boards suffice somewhat for the study of technique, but fall short when one seeks to express. Without access to a solid spectrum of sound, developing pianists will depreciate on all fronts.

Non-pianists benefit equally from having and hearing a reliable instrument. A smooth, sonorous piano becomes a source of intrigue, rather than the pastime of dinky introverts. While most young people prefer modern mega-hits to the classical canon, few object to beautiful music itself; placing a quality instrument in Battell would open the most unlikely musical doors. Piano keys with body beckon to all passersby, a sight oft met on those streets dotted with painted uprights. Having a decent piano within reach creates social harmony.

A busy student’s reach, however, does not extend down the hill to the Mahaney Center. Many a first-year Middleburian has yet to set foot in the building (there is no need for non-athletes or non-performing artists to venture so far from home), and many more are unaware of the grand pianos hidden in Wright, Sunderland, and Mead. If we were students at, say, Pomona College, where the weather wavers between sunny and partially cloudy, then certainly there would be less of a need for a good piano in one’s living quarters. However, in beautiful Middlebury, the overachieving winters corral overachieving students into single places for entire sections of the day. Extra trips down icy paths, sometimes in ski masks, is a bit much to ask of otherwise-occupied students. Also, a pianist’s quibble: cold weather necessitates an elaborate finger-defrosting ritual involving stretching, drumming, and “pinky push-ups”; warm-up routines take twice as long in the winter. After subtracting minutes spent on additional travel and warm-up from allotted practice time, there remains little room for improvement. Winter conditions necessitate a local instrument.

From the array of possible pianos, a humble candidate shines. Yamaha makes “all-around good egg” instruments: even-toned keyboards characterized by sturdy Asian dependability, at prices reasonable enough to tempt the stingiest of patrons. A Yamaha’s unaffected, responsive voice suits students still tinkering with the ins and outs of sound production. Most (fortunate) students take their lessons and perform on Steinways, but practice at home on Yamahas. No matter which way one presses a key, a smooth sound results; Yamahas endure and even beautify forceful beatings of “Heart and Soul” or “Chopsticks,” much to the player’s pleasure. Practiced fingers would further appreciate meticulous construction of every upright and grand (Father Yamaha was a clock-maker, and the tradition of precision prevails). Price-wise, each increment of the College’s potential budget corresponds to a Yamaha piano; cost covers much wider a range than quality.

There exists a unique Yamaha for every nook of Battell. High-quality “silent” pianos may be placed on every floor, for the pleasure of the player and the peace of his or her company; teachers recommend these electric keyboards to students in dorms or with late-night practice habits. An acoustic Yamaha upright or baby grand would do very well in the basement, and a mute-able keyboard would complete a common room. That the new piano is a Yamaha is the sole criterion, for reasons previously discussed; the precise model matters less.

Pleading pleasantries aside, could not life go on without pianos? What measurable worth have they in the societal rat-race propelled by higher education? A quality piano has much more to offer to Middlebury than its tangible self; it carries with it prestige. Middlebury’s music reputation could truly use a lift; many, many fitting students are deterred from applying to the College because of its relative musical paucity (which, upon arrival, I find to be the reverse case; there is a wealth of artistic activity here that sites such as College Confidential neglect to mention because Middlebury tends to flaunt its athletic, typical-of-NESCAC feats over artistic ones). Yale College and similar company constantly tout their musical superiority; no tour guide neglects to mention the Steinways supplied to each and every residential college. Each time Middlebury acquires a new piano, more hands will play, and more ears will hear, and Middlebury will incrementally rise to musical prominence. For musical intrigue is present, today more than ever. No one doubts music-making’s ability to build community; international movements such as El Sistema and the Landfillharmonic are founded on the principle. “Play Me, I’m Yours” -- the U.K.-based network of street pianos -- fills metropolises with joyful noise. Imagine Middlebury students crowded at the piano bench on weekends, in admiration of and entertaining each other, quenching their souls with music rather than beer. The scene is not as far-fetched as one would think; it lies but a single Yamaha away.

*NESCAC: New England Small College Athletic Conference

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