I had a wonderful run recently as the substitute pianist for the Bella Vista Women’s Chorus (BVWC). My performance agreement included two rehearsals and three concerts with the group, but ended with the final concert this past Tuesday. I had high hopes as I arrived at the venue, since the first two concerts were really successful. The lobby and grand parlor were beautifully appointed, and a very shiny baby grand piano awaited me. However, during the choral warmup, I learned that this concert was not going to be the success for which I hoped.
There were five to six notes that were sticking, including the A4. This is a pitch in the center of the piano known as the tuning pitch used by orchestras. When several of your pieces are written in D Major and F Major, it’s impossible to avoid this note, since it’s part of the tonic chord! The problem was that if I transposed pieces, I ran into other notes that were broken. For instance, there were two sticking notes in the bass, a B-flat and E-flat in the bass, so in avoiding one problem I encountered another.
To someone who doesn’t play the piano professionally, this may seem like a minor deal. Perhaps this piano would have been a treasure compared to the ones used by the Jewish musicians who were trying to make music to keep their sanity in Theresienstadt. But this is an upscale retirement community, not Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe, which purports to care about their residents by providing the means for groups like the BVWC to bring the joy of music that we all need.
Some of the residents I talked to between the warmup and the concert asked me how I was dealing with the problem of the broken keys. I said not very well! They were fellow pianists who had mentioned the problems to the staff many times over the past several years without any success. It was clear to me, even without their confirmation, that the piano had not been maintained for years. I noticed that the instrument was also wickedly out of tune. Pianos do go out of tune mildly due to seasonal changes in the temperature, humidity, and atmospheric pressure. This was instead pure neglect.
While playing in the concert itself, I frequently lost my place in complicated repeating passages as I scanned ahead on the page for the A4. I was trying to avoid playing that note so as not to injure my hand. I chose to play in octaves low and high trying to avoid the broken notes. As a performing musician, I don’t make a lot of money, especially when working with all-volunteer groups. When the opportunity to make music is taken away from me, there is nothing left.
Lesson learned. I will insist that the concert organizer confirms that the performance instrument is completely operational. Simply put, all 88 notes play correctly. It’s a welcome bonus if the piano has been tuned recently, but sometime in the last year is the minimum standard. As a backstop, I will be adding a clause to my standard performance agreement: If a piano is not completely operational, I am free and clear to walk out of a performance and still receive the performance fee.