Wee, sleekit, cowr'in, tim'rous beastie, O, what panic's in thy breastie! - Robert Burns
So, I thought more about my piano, that is irremovably stuck in the kitchen without the help of three men, and what I had Posted about it last night, which didn’t really make much sense. I mean, how would aerosols of cooking fat have jammed the keys?
It wasn’t my idea, someone else had suggested it as a possible cause of the sticking keys. It was one of those not very likely ideas that gets wedged in the crevices of your mind and pops out whenever you need something to say about your piano, but really, cooking fat! I don’t cook with fat, I use only the best olive oil I can afford. Mostly, though, I microwave.
After brooding on it for a while, some of that old investigative spirit began to come back, and I opened up the lid again and started to poke around a bit, to see what else might be causing the problem. I took off the top, then the front panel, took out the heavy plank with the lid attached, and the downstairs kick panel. There seemed to be a lot of dirt in the corners around the keys, and nestling in the dirt were the telltale little brown pellets of –
It was a eureka! moment, to be sure. Mice! My heart sank at the thought of having to replace all that felt. I have read that mice live on the felt in your piano. I felt around carefully (ha! puns, so early in the day) but all the felting on the hammers, the trippy things, the green strips underneath all seemed in not too bad shape. I exhaled softly.
The presence of brown lumps of dried dogfood suggested that the mice had all they needed by way of comestibles. They didn’t need to eat piano felt, which can’t be very nutritious. I unscrewed a wooden bar that was holding them in place and, one by one, not quite knowing how, but feeling my way gently, began removing the keys (luckily, they are numbered). Underneath, was all kinds of crud that was stopping them from returning. I got out the Henry, and sucked out the bits of nest material and the dried pellets of shit and accumulated dust, being careful not to suck up too many of the little green rings of felt under the keys. Luckily, the mice weren’t at home.
Soon, minor difficulties arose – the top D key would not go back, I had to make adjustments. I saw that the soft-pedal rod was out of place, and reset it. The tongue of wood that holds the kick-panel on the front was broken, I glued it back together with the glue I hadn’t been able to find before. It was all going well, the time was flying by and I allowed myself a quiet fantasy about how pleasant it would be, at my time of life, to become a piano restorer.
As I put each key back and tested it, and it functioned perfectly, a sense of pride rose in me at what I was achieving. Soon, I was trying out chords, and then with both hands, the familiar strains of Rachmaninov began to… well, okay, Three Blind Mice.
Cat. If it was Cat who had hunted down the missing piano mice and eviscerated them by night in the sitting-room on my expensive crimson rug (Handmade in India, 100% acrylic), then who was it who had introduced them in the first place? Was Cat storing mice in my piano, to torture them at leisure – the Abu Graib of Aberystwyth? Their pathetic possessions disappearing up the nozzle of the Henry took on new poignancy
But the thing that struck me most was a sense of wonder. For only £200, plus £70 for the useful heater the piano tuner sold me, I had become the owner of this large wooden box containing a complicated mechanism of iron, steel wire and coils, wood and felt, so precise and delicate, yet so resilient that, in the right hands, it could be made to sound like goblins hammering, or traffic in New York – the song of the skylark on a fine summer’s evening; that could conjure any mood, lift the darkest spirits to set you dancing, or plunge you into despair and introspection.
It was a magic box!
And the evidence was that each of the hundreds of tiny little interconnected strips and tongues and posts and hammers of wood had been individually carved, by someone’s hand.
I pictured generations of craftsmen called Hans and Volcker in some fairytale Bavarian town, leading their quiet, orderly lives; cycling to work every day in a factory smelling of piano glue, under a big sign innocently proclaiming the owners’ names, Herr Fuchs and Herr Mohr; where they sit quietly carving all day, the intricate, tiny pieces of my piano, drifts of wood shavings mounting up around them; handing boxes of completed parts over to other craftsmen to fit together, the whole thing slowly building up to the moment when the tester sits down to ripple-off a Beethoven sonata, and the magical voice of my piano is heard in the land.
There’s something about manufacturing pianos at which no-one can possibly take offence. It’s an ethical, almost a religious, undertaking to make a piano. I once created a sales brochure for a piano-maker in Gloucestershire, it had pride of place in my portfolio. Just the subject of making pianos alone made my copy sing.
But I’m told no-one much buys pianos nowadays, they’re too heavy and take up too much space and require tuning and maintenance, and don’t have exciting onboard digital effects, with 147 separate instrumental voices, sample tunes to play along to, and a programmable drum kit. They don’t fit-in with our freewheeling modern lifestyle, or with our seeming inability to concentrate on anything for more than thirty seconds.
No kid nowadays would wake up, thrilling with excitement on his or her birthday, breathlessly anticipating going down to the living room in their slippers and pyjamas, to find a gift of – a piano? WTF??? But Mum, Dad, it only has one ringtone and you can’t text your mates. I hate you!
But the worst thing about a piano, you can pay two thousand pounds and leave it in the sunshine with the lid up, and the next day it is worth only two hundred in some faraway charity shop, and then you can’t give it away free with your house, even with the keys working again.
No-one has bothered inventing the i-piano. The piano has no apps, no GPS – no SMS messaging or Skype. And you don’t get mice living lives of quiet desperation, eating dogfood in a digital keyboard.