Family

We’d Be Crazy Not to Take the Piano

Collage of woman pushing a piano through a doorway.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Sam Manns on Unsplash, Julián Gentilezza on Unsplash, and Thinkstock.

After my dad let me quit the piano, he started taking lessons. After he quit, my mother took it up because a large, expensive instrument was going to waste. After she quit, the piano became furniture, supporting pictures of the family at our best: smiling for a Unitarian Society photo shortly before we lapsed, skiing (another pricey hobby I disliked and quit), my brother and me as babies. It sat there, a monument to wasted potential, until my parents moved and it was shipped off to another family.

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You can’t just throw out a piano. You can’t just turn one down, either. We enter a glittery fugue state that blinds us to the likelihood that no one will play this piano unless forced to. Because in this vision, it’s not us playing; it’s our kids.

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I was at my cousin’s kid’s birthday party when my aunt offered me a piano. It was part of the reshuffle of furniture as my grandmother moved into an assisted living facility. Nanny’s baby grand would bump out the old upright at my cousin’s house in Cherry Hill. The upright could then slide down the family tree to our house a few towns over, where we’d squeeze it into our dining room.

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A feeling gathered in my chest and I beelined to my husband, who was eating cake in the playroom, making sure our 2-year-old wasn’t getting pummeled by the older kids. Our son was at a plastic workbench, using a saw as a hammer. I envisioned his little head bowed over the keys, banging out new neural pathways. I leaned in to my husband’s ear and hissed, “We’d be crazy to not take the piano.”

My mother visited the weekend before the piano was to be delivered. She winced when I showed her where I planned to put it. Then she called my aunt to get the exact dimensions.
Before she left, she scratched a warning on our kitchen chalk wall:

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Piano

(56” W)

(48” H)

A few days later, she sent an urgent text about putting a rectangular object into a square room. “She could give the piano to some one else. Do not want you guys to be stuck!!!!!”

Five exclamation points is not a lot for my mother. What was a lot was the sudden concern about my interior design. It was code for something she couldn’t address without dredging up our mutual guilt over our old piano. Or memories of 8-year-old me panicking through a half-hour of scales. Why was I about to do that to my son?

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I did think about turning down the piano. But then a video of Donald Gould, the Homeless Piano Man, popped up on one of my social feeds. Gould spent nearly 20 years on the street, suffering from addiction, until someone uploaded video of him playing “Come Sail Away” by Styx. Within three days of going viral, he raised $40,000 and was granted a full scholarship to finish his degree. He’s now married with a recording contract.

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See, I thought. We’d be fucking crazy to not take the piano.

Our piano is a 1939 Janssen, “The Home Piano of America.” This is its fourth home. Before my cousin, it lived with my aunt and uncle and their twins in Westfield. Before that, it belonged to my aunt’s parents’ neighbors in Summit. It’s a New Jersey piano, with the warm furred resonance of whatever gets stacked on top of it, which right now is a few loose swim diapers and a bowl of coins waiting to be sorted.

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The piano was delivered while I was at work. When I came home and saw it in the dining room, I froze. It fit, but the pressure to play it filled the room. I opened the fallboard, looked at the 88 keys, and felt blinded by their infinite potential. But when I sat down to play a scale, it felt much simpler. A piano is really just eight notes, repeated eight times. And if you get one of them wrong, the right one is usually nearby. We could do this, I thought. “I could take lessons!” I shouted at my husband, who was leaving to pick up our son from day care. “It might be therapeutic,” he replied.

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After he left, I lifted the heavy front panel designed with no consideration for kids’ tiny fingers. Printed on the piano’s ceiling, under decades of suburban dust, was the Janssen Creed:

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This is my creed and on it I have built my Piano and Reputation! To give you as nearly as possible a dollar’s value for every dollar you give me. To treat you as I want to be treated—Considerately—Fairly—and Justly.

Since you may possibly know little or nothing about the material that goes into the piano you bought, you must naturally rely on me. I want you to do that—and I promise that your confidence shall not be misplaced. I work to produce a perfect article. If it turns out differently and I or my people are to blame, I make good;

Following this creed for a life time, has earned a JANSSEN reputation, that my product and methods must; maintain.

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(The final lines still haunt me:)

I want to be right and do right. If I fail in any one thing, it will never be because I wanted to.

—BH Janssen, Pres.

No book I’ve read or advice I’ve received describes the arc of parenting, from dreams to disappointment, like the Janssen Creed. It reminds me of my wild pregnancy optimism: This is my Child, made of my Genetic Material! I’d think, lying awake at night and sweating through another set of sheets. He will Fulfill not only HIS Potential but MINE!

After that child was pushed out of my body with the ease and grace of, say, squeezing a rectangular piano into a square dining room, I was forced to amend my own parenting creed. Nursing didn’t work. He despised all carriers. He never liked my cooking and, at the time of this writing, hasn’t eaten dinner in a month. He has touched the piano exactly once.

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As the end of the Janssen Creed acknowledges, few things turn out exactly as designed. I was crazy to take the piano. It’s delusional to think that our children will be exceptional. But I keep at it, for hours a day, every day. Parenthood is a joy to practice because it’s done for the pure love of the thing. And sometimes that love looks like schlepping a dusty 800-pound instrument into your house on the one-in-a-million chance that your kid will appreciate it. I hope my son would do the same for his kid, because God knows I’ll need to get rid of the Janssen.

The piano looks good in the square room. I texted my mom a picture.

“Very important that nobody gives him a hard time when practicing,” she replied. “Very important to find the right teacher (later!!!)”

“Of course.” I wrote back. By then, I’ll be playing well enough to give him lessons.

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