The music maker

To speak plainly at the beginning, I am notm a piano player. I do not "tickle the ivories," we we used to say in school. The old advertising line to the effect that "They laughed when I sat down to play" would apply to me perfectly -- except that there would not ensue the awed astonishment that was supposed to prevail when the results of a mail-order course were displayed. Nevertheless I enjoy hearing others at the keys, and I am old-fashioned enough to think that a house doesn't really seem like a home until a piano stands in one corner of it.

In the house where I grew up, the piano stood in the corner of a rather grand parlor. The shades were normally drawn, and when the music teacher came on Monday afternoons she lifted these with a dramatic flourish, letting in the sunlight and revealing the sofas and chairs covered in a purple velvet. I was not a very apt pupil, as may be surmised from what I have already said; but the little I do know of music, how to read notes and how to appreciate the technique of the good play er, I learned from her. My younger brother was more enthusiastic, and swore that at 18 he would have his debut in Carnegie Hall. He didn't quite make it, but he became a proficient and much-enjoyed performer.

These things came back to me when I set out the other day for Bangor, Maine, to see about the possibility of buying a piano for our house. On the main street, in a loft behind a 19th-century storefront, I was shown a handsome display of instruments. At work on the top floor I found Mr. Donald Bickford, of East Holden, a master craftsman who rebuilds pianos from the ground up; who tunes them, plays them like a charm, and discourses learnedly on every aspect of their history and manufacture. In the next half hour I learned more about pianos than I had ever thought to know.

Around us as Mr. Bickford played and spoke were the inward parts of various instruments, as well as disemboweled cases which would eventually be refinished with all the skill of an expert cabinetmaker. There for the first time I saw the pinboard, which is in many ways the heart of the machine, holding as it does the pins on which the wires are stretched. Without a good pinboard you cannot get accurate or long-lived tuning, and Mr. Bickford assured me that in every old piano with which he is entrusted the implanting of a new pinboard is the first step. I saw the sounding board with its precise tolerances and delicate configurations. Even the heavy metal frame, looking lke a naked harp or lyre, I saw taken out of its case and made to shine like new.

An antique grand, square in shape -- such as one sees in old engravings -- had been sent up from Washington for complete rebuilding. The owner had told Mr. Bickford there wasn't any hurry in fixing up that one. Evidently he had taken the owner at his word, for he dealth with each small piece, from every hammer to every piece of ivory on the keyboard, as he would with a precious jewel. The piano hade been built originally in 1852, and Mr. Bickford supposed that when he was through it would be tinkling merrily far into the cold and mechanized world of the 21st century.

I didn't quite commit myself to the considerable investment which a piano involves, but I left Mr. Bickford's loft with a gleam in my eye. I looked at this room where I now write. To place a baby grand piano in it would be quite possible, even though it would mean condensing the expanse of papers and books which I am in the custom of laying out before me. Did I really need them all? Could I not be more like a mole, or a mouse, nibbling away in a small corner? And then I thought of my wife's music rising to the high rafters and of evening hours beguiled by visiting minstrels. Even in repose would not the instrument have a certain reassuring presence?

If I succumb, I shall have Mr. Bickford to thank -- and the memory of a music teacher long ago, who must have had the discouraging thought that all her efforts were being spent in vain.

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