This story, which spans almost seventy years, starts in the late 1940s when my wife Rohan was still a New Zealand toddler. Before she left for England aged three, she had two favourite babysitters, Ted and Margaret. Both were music students and, as it transpires, both shared a happy disregard for the perfectly-tuned piano.
Fast forward some thirty years and our youngest son Oliver, who was then five, suddenly declared that he wanted to play the piano – a surprising request since no one else in the family played an instrument. We found him a teacher, bought him a piano and he has played ever since. This upright was second-hand and cheap. It was also rarely in tune, but this never seemed to worry him. Nor did it worry Edwin Carr, the ‘Ted’ of Rohan’s childhood, who was by now an eminent classical composer living in London and working on a new commission. Ted came to our house every day to work on his composition and was not fazed by notes that were out-of-tune; to him they were unimportant. When questioned, he answered that, ultimately, the music was in his head rather than on the keyboard. No doubt he said the same thing to the young Oliver, with whom he spent several hours ‘composing’.
That original piano was later replaced by one that was mellower and more expensive. It too was second-hand, but this one was for Rohan. At the time of the purchase she was in her early sixties and had decided to live a childhood dream – to play the piano. To fulfil this dream she asked the once babysitting Margaret, now in her 80s and living close by in London, to be her piano teacher.
Over the past ten years this upright has been tuned occasionally, but Rohan, like Ted and Margaret, has never been too concerned. For her, other aspects of piano playing are more important – the melody, the rhythm, the overall sound and the joy of sight-reading. While it is the case that she is thrown by notes that are badly out of tune those notes that are mildly amiss, go ignored. On the rare occasion that I have suggested there was a need for tuning, she is usually unaware of any problem.
Oliver, now in his mid-thirties, plays a great deal, and whenever he visits there will be moments when he slips into the front room and tickles the ivories. If asked about tuning he is adamant – while at a concert he would want a piano, or any other instrument, to be fully tuned, when he is at the piano improvising, composing or accompanying a sing-along, notes that are out-of-tune are of minor importance. His ears simply ‘forgive’ them. For him, it is ‘the harmonic progression, the rhythm, the feelings’ that matter. Like mother, like son.
The different standards that apply when it comes to public performance came to the fore last week. Oliver had composed the music for “How Eva Von Schnippisch Single-Handedly Won WW2” an hour-long, one-woman show at the Brighton festival and he had to record the track to accompany her. He asked if he could use our piano for the recording as his own was ‘kaput’. He also asked if ours had been tuned recently; I said I thought it had.
He arrived, shut himself away, played a few notes and then a storm broke. There were not just one or two notes out-of-tune, it was all of them! Recording would be unthinkable; the sound would just be a distraction. And what’s more, the piano stool squeaked.
We found another chair, and after some calming and much reflection, he went ahead. The recording could be used for the dress rehearsal and, if needs be, a new recording made for the main performances. In the meantime, I would mend the stool and arrange for the piano to be tuned.
Repairing the stool, with its complicated mechanism for adjusting the seat, wasn’t easy, and nor was finding a piano tuner at short notice. When the tuner eventually came, and after he had done a preliminary check of the keyboard, I asked how many notes he would need to re-tune. His answer was immediate and cryptic – ’82’. The odd thing is that our piano has 88!
With the seat repaired and the piano re-tuned, all was ready for the definitive recording which actually only involved a few tracks; in hindsight much of the original recording had been of a standard deemed fit for public consumption.
The events of the last weeks persuaded me to do a mini-survey. I discovered that amongst my musical friends few could ever ignore notes that are out of tune. I am left to believe that perhaps two of my nearest and dearest are members of unusual musical group who can overlook out-of-tune notes and whose history, in this respect, can be traced back to the 1940s.