The curse of hearing everything

Perri Knize sits in her living room Thursday with the grand piano that became her obsession and the subject of her new book. The Missoula author details a quest to find the right piano and her resulting exploration of sound, music and humanity. Photo by TOM BAUER/Missoulian

Perri Knize. Photo by Tom Bauer/The Missoulian

I’ve just finished Perri Knize’s fine memoir, “Grand Obsession: A Piano Odyssey.” Knize, a Montana-based journalist, bought a hand-crafted German grand piano at a New York showroom and had it shipped to her home in Missoula. When it got there, it sounded nothing like the instrument she fell in love with. So she set off on a three-year quest to restore her piano’s trademark sound. Along the way, she learned a lot about how pianos are made and maintained.

Every piano is unique. Even Yamaha, which has a reputation for turning out uniformly manufactured instruments, has never made two pianos that are exactly alike. That’s because pianos are like living organisms; they are made of wood and felt and wire, and they are exquisitely sensitive to temperature and humidity. A piano’s sound changes over time. It’s the job of the piano technician to give an instrument precisely the touch and timbre that the artist desires.

Pianists and technicians both can be finicky creatures, so their relationship can be volatile. At times while reading “Grand Obsession,” one might be forgiven for thinking that Knize is deeply neurotic, so insistent is she on restoring the sound her piano was “meant” to have. But as she consults the nation’s most renowned technicians (she even flies them in from New York), it becomes clear that Knize has a rare gift that doubles as an affliction: She hears everything. The techs can’t dismiss her as a head case, because they hear the same things that she does. So they join her in an epic effort that involves many tunings, much voicing (the shaping of the piano’s hammers to alter the sound) and even the wholesale replacement of some very expensive parts. Suffice to say that no one made money on this effort. In the end it’s a fascinating and sometimes hair-raising search for the sort of sonic reward that only a handful of people can appreciate.

I have a very good ear, but after reading this, I’m sure it is nothing like Knize’s. Perhaps that’s just as well. By the way, the story does have a happy ending. “Marlene,” as Knize calls her piano, is now singing as she should. I’m happy for both of them.



I’m with the band

For three seasons now, my daughters and I have played in the Lake Mills City Band. It’s a small band in a small community, and it’s open to everyone.

Last night we rehearsed again, and it was a bit ragged. It’s a summer band, so this is the off season, and attendance is spotty. We had seven musicians last night. (Be grateful that you were not there to hear our run-through of the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black.”) I am the de facto concertmaster of the band, as I occupy the first cornet chair. When we’re at the full roster of perhaps 18, there are five or six halfway decent players, and we pull the group along with us. Not that this is all bad. One benefit of playing in a middling ensemble is that one’s contributions are always appreciated. And the members have been exceptionally welcoming to my daughters and me.

I have played in several community bands over the years — in both Michigan and Wisconsin. The best of them, the Cudworth American Legion Band in Milwaukee, was a tremendous all-city group in which I was buried somewhere close to last chair. The others — well, each of them is a story in itself.

Like most of my interests, playing in a city band is an outmoded — some might say dying — avocation. I don’t care. When the baton falls for the summer season, I’m so psyched that I might as well be on stage with Leonard Bernstein at Tanglewood.


Thank God for church gigs

I played in church again this morning. Nothing special — we’re in a period of what Catholics call “ordinary time,” to distinguish it from the holy seasons of Easter, Advent, Christmas and Lent. No incense or bells or anything like that. Just good, straightforward music with our music director, Lisa Kysely, and the adult choir.

Catholic music is a mixed bag. The church has no modern musical heritage, so we borrow from elsewhere and compose our own. The Lutherans invented modern church music. They had Bach, of course, and Martin Luther himself wrote “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” The Anglicans rule the organ universe, and gospel music flowed from the black and evangelical churches. By contrast, a Catholic parish is only as good as its music director. Some churches rely on volunteers, and they get what they pay for. Lisa is a professional. She’s a music-school grad, and she’s a solid pianist and organist with a good feel for what works. We borrow heavily from what I like to call the “stuffy Protestant” canon, and Lisa fills in with gospel styles and Latin American stuff. There’s some material from the 1970s, but most of it has aged about as well as that era’s polyester leisure suits. We play some of that, but not too much.

People in our parish actually sing. My daughter Lucy cantored this morning, but she and my older daughter, Margaret, join me occasionally on alto sax and clarinet, respectively.

I like playing in church. The music is decent, Lisa is great to work with, and it’s gratifying to do something in service of the parish.




The mighty mighty Strad

The image in the header is not my horn, but it’s the same model as mine. The trumpet above is a Bach Stradivarius Model 37, medium-large bore. I bought one of these toward the end of 1974, when I was in high school. I still have it, and I still play it. It’s the only horn I’ve ever owned as an adult. The case was replaced several years ago, and I have also replaced one bottom valve cap. Other than that, it’s original — a couple of small dings, and the silver plate has worn off in places, but it’s still a great horn.

Playing a Strad is like driving a Mercedes-Benz: It’s solid and responsive, and the ML bore pushes back just enough to keep the player from careening all over the place. If the intonation is off (as mine sometimes is), it’s the fault of the musician, not the horn.

We trumpet players are fortunate in that, unlike violinists, we don’t have to pay a fortune for an excellent instrument. A new Strad today will set you back about $2,300. Back at the end of the Nixon administration, I paid $330 for mine.