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The other night the sound of a gunshot snapped me out of my piano playing zen-zone like a toaster dropped in the bathtub. The culprit? A popped piano string.
Have you ever thought about piano playing as a high risk occupation? The strings in a grand piano generate around 60,000 pounds of tension, and when one of them snaps, a razor sharp steel whip randomly explodes from the piano faster than the eye can see. Hopefully the pianist escapes injury because fixing a broken piano string is a relatively easy repair. However, there have been other times when sudden problems in the piano had more severe consequences.
My stage piano had a lot of issues so I decided to tinker with it. The keys on a grand piano are connected to a wooden frame that can be pulled out like a drawer to make it easier to work on them, and when I pushed this frame back in I heard a sickening “crunch” sound, like the sound a person’s leg makes when it gets trapped in a pile of falling beach logs. I had destroyed a piano hammer which meant that one of the notes I most liked to play didn’t work. This is kind of like being told not to use the letter “M” while speaking.
I lived in Aspen, Colorado for a few years and spent most of that time as the house pianist for the Ritz-Carlton, playing gigs around town, skiing, hiking, and mountain biking. When I first arrived in Aspen I was told that, “People come for the winters, but they stay for the summers.” It’s true. As awesome as winter in Aspen is, the Rocky Mountains are home to the most spectacular summers I’ve ever seen.
My bassist and I played a lot of private parties and once we were hired for a winter party held in a huge stereotypical Aspen log mansion full of Colorado celebrities, politicians and other VIP’s. The party cost $9,000,000 USD which included flying Natalie Cole and her band from Los Angeles for one set of music. We played for cocktail hour and I had the pleasure of playing on a 9′ Concert Steinway Grand piano, a piano player’s dream. Like driving around in a gold Rolls Royce.
There were a lot of people at the party and it didn’t take long before it was uncomfortably warm and humid, so someone opened the vents which blasted frigid Rocky Mountain air directly at the vulnerable underbelly of the piano. Pianos are delicately balanced pieces of machinery with thousands of moving parts and a thin wooden sound board with almost 300 finely tuned strings stretched across it. Winter in Aspen is cold. If you breathe in through your nose, everything in your nose freezes. After a while you figure out how cold it is by how fast everything in your nose freezes.
The blast of cold air from the vents caused a major malfunction in the piano which resulted in the keys and dampers sticking — the notes would not stop. This forced me to play with one hand on the keys while the other was deep inside the piano manually stopping the notes. This is like trying to drive that gold Rolls Royce at night with sunglasses on, four flat tires, and no headlights through a snow tornado filled with shoelaces and cats.
To make matters worse, my bass player and I were forced to wait in the root cellar during Natalie Cole’s show. It was disappointing until we found the collection of hand rolled Cuban cigars and bottles of 1964 Port that we assumed had been left out just for us.
I often put on a holiday jazz shows in my home town, and once I did it at the nicest concert venue we have. I hired the best players, a fantastic singer, and the show sold out weeks before. On the day of the concert, I arrived an hour early to rehearse a couple tunes with the band and I found that the piano sounded like it hadn’t been tuned. Ever. In fact, it was so out of tune that one note sounded like three. Panicking was out of the question, so I rushed back home to get my piano tuning tools (and my electronic piano just in case) and spent every minute before the concert trying to make the piano sound something like a piano. It didn’t sound great, but it sounded good enough and the show was a resounding success.
Times like these remind me that life rarely goes according to plan, and it’s why I always try to be open to all outcomes but attached to none. Resiliency and flexibility are art forms, and getting better at any art form, just like playing piano, requires practice and dedication.
Life gives you limes? Practice making margaritas.
Scot Ranney is a jazz pianist who has been performing internationally since 1990. He performs in first-class hotels and other venues across Asia and writing about his experiences is one of his more serious passions.
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