Tuesday, June 14, 2016


You know that feeling, when you are a passenger in a car being driven through the mountains, and you lean into the curves just a little too early, or a little too late?  As a driver, you never get the sensation -  you know exactly when the car will respond, because you are in control.

But as the passenger, you get all of the thrills of a roller coaster ride with none of the built-in security features that roller coasters are required to have.

I was surprised to find myself thinking of being a passenger in the mountains this weekend.  When we bought the house, it came with a lovely piece of lagniappe (see my blog entry on that term here).  In addition to owning a lovely house, we now also own a baby grand piano.

Yes.  The house comes partially furnished.  No, they did not leave the refrigerator.  No washer/dryer, either.

But we got ourselves a baby grand.

Our new piano.
It is an Ellington piano, which is was manufactured by Baldwin in the 1920s.  It has a lovely brown mahogany body, and was clearly in dire need of a little TLC.  One of the first things I did when I came into the house during our recon visit was to sit down and surreptitiously check out the tuning.

It was bad.  It was fingernails-on-chalkboard bad.  I grew up playing a piano that had been moved - twice - without being tuned.  So somewhat out-of-tune pianos are not such a big deal to me.  But this?  I have uploaded the video of the chromatic scale to youtube to show how awful it was.

Kathe ended up calling The Piano Man, a local piano tuner out of Jackson, MS.  I was there for some of the tuning (I had bought tools so that I could try and tune it myself, and Kathe wisely - and sneakily - called for a professional to do it before I could do any irreparable damage.)  And it was a pretty amazing process. (I still maintain I would have done a decent job, and I really, really, really wanted 'piano tuning' on my Renaissance Man Resume).

What I discovered after fifteen minutes of listening to him tune the piano
is that it is EXACTLY like being a passenger in the mountains, taking switchbacks just a little too fast.  I sat in the passenger seat while he would tighten, play the note, tighten, play the note, tighten, play the note, loosen, and play the note.

I think this is what Kathe was really afraid of - that I would
get this far, and get stuck...
He was watching the software on his iPad tell him whether to tighten or loosen the string.  But my body would tense has he tightened and played the note, incrementally getting the note closer to the center of the tone. And when I anticipated the tone going up, but it went down, my response was visceral.  And awful.

After a mere half hour, I was on edge, irritable, and tense.  Kathe had been listening to him for more than six HOURS. Six long hours of leaning into every curve, guessing wrong some times, right other times, and never knowing whether you were leaning the right way until after the note was played.

But the result, at the end of the process, was simply wonderful.  The richness of tone was truly astonishing, and it made even a quit-when-I-was-in-the-fourth-grade piano player like me sound good.


The more I think about it, my reactions to life in Mississippi might parallel the passenger-in-the-mountains.  I keep finding times when I lean into the curve with my expectations about what is about to happen.  Much of the time, I guess right, and it is only a matter of timing.  The person I am meeting - whoever it is - is nice, polite, kind, and helpful, with exquisite manners.  I lean into those interactions with great joy.

And other times, I find myself leaning the wrong way, and am delighted in the discovery.  Coming from New Orleans, I always wait an extra beat at intersections (whether I am a pedestrian, passenger, or driver), to see whether the driver is going to do something crazy, stupid, or murderous, or maybe all three.  It never fails to surprise me when I see someone wave me through, making it easier on me.  The flinch is reinforced from 20 years in a city that treats pedestrians as squirrels.

It is a delightful feeling to find the flinch unnecessary.

And then sometimes I find myself leaning the wrong way entirely, but not in a good way.

Even though I know better (I am a South Carolinian, and have faced similar prejudices), I struggle to rid myself of the preconceived notions that non-Mississippians have about folk from Mississippi.

You know the ones I mean.  Mississippians, we all know, are all Rednecks.  Stupid.  Uneducated.  Racist.  (I mean, come on - the state flag still contains the Confederate flag embedded.)  The prejudice I bring to the table It is a subtle form of elitism, and one that I am not entitled to practice.

So I guess wrong, and leaning into the curve the wrong way surprises me.  The guy who cuts the grass is an engineer.  The carpenter references obscure Baroque artists in casual conversation.  The AC guy is a brilliant, retired scientist.  The real estate agent is an engineer and is married to a school principal.

The Piano Man is a tall, white-haired guy with a long, bushy beard and a distinct air of Uncle Jesse (you know, from the Dukes of Hazzard).  He is kindly.  He is talkative.  He is a born-again Christian.  He tells us straight out that he is not an academic sort of guy, that he prefers to learn things by doing, and loves using his hands in his work.

And he is, by the way, a Julliard-trained musician.

Wait, what?

After college, he found out that professional tuba playing was not as much of a thing as he had originally surmised, and he didn't want to get an MFA.  Decided instead to go do a program at Julliard.  But also just decided to start working on pianos.  And got better over time, and made a business out of it.

And with each person I meet, I get the opportunity to have my preconceived notions overturned.  As I do, I discover that as discordant as each interaction sounds at the outset, the main thing that I am fighting is my expectation of the interaction.  Once I start leaning in, in rhythm with the people here, I know better where they are coming from, and where they want to go.

And the result is something beautiful. And something I want to play along with.  Harmony is a beautiful thing.

UPDATE: Embedded videos - before and after - below.



1 comment:

Elizabeth Henderson said...

First off - jealous! We had an upright piano - the kind honky-tonk players used - when I was little, but my parents sold it before I could learn to play. So owning a piano and learning to play are on my bucket list (sorry, Stacy...).

Second - awesome insights!