Practice takes players toward perfection when talented students have good pianos


Prodigious musical talent in the very young is probably no more common today than it ever was. But nowadays if a precocious youngster evinces uncanny facility on the violin or cello, it's likely that heroic efforts will be made to provide an instrument that allows that child to develop his or her talent to its fullest potential.

The availability of a good instrument is critical for string players because the cost of the highest quality instruments is literally astronomical -- Stradivarius or Guarneri violins, for example, sell for several million dollars apiece -- and because often the most gifted players are those least able to afford even modestly priced fiddles.

That is why civic-minded music lovers in several cities -- including Baltimore -- have quietly organized small, tax-exempt organizations that help gifted string players acquire quality instruments.

Some of these are private foundations that raise money to buy instruments that are then lent out for a specified time, generally until the recipient finishes school. Others act as brokers, matching outstanding young string players with corporate sponsors who purchase rare instruments for their investment portfolios.

Alas, there seems to be no such recourse for the gifted keyboard artist, however. Though the prices of the best pianos are minuscule compared with those of first-rate violins and cellos -- the most popular Steinway models start at about $35,000 new -- the aspiring pianist whose family lacks the means to buy a Steinway or an older Mason-Hamlin, for example, is pretty much out of luck.

Stories abound about the travails pianists endure to get their hands on a decent practice instrument. (Unlike string players, pianists almost never perform on the instruments they use to prepare their recitals.)

The American virtuoso Gary Grafman, for instance, recalled with wry humor the efforts of his parents and piano teacher to find their young prodigy an instrument worthy of his talent.

"It was typical that [piano teacher Isabelle] Vengerova considered it important for a seven-year-old to practice on a Steinway," Grafman writes in his irreverent memoir, "I Really Should Be Practicing: Reflections on the Pleasures and Perils of Playing the Piano in Public."

"She regarded what she considered the best instrument a necessary tool for building a proper musical education, reinforcing her constant preoccupation with sound for the sake of sound, and the singing, non-percussive tone that she felt so necessary for pianists to acquire," Grafman notes. "For the next 10 years, in my unceasing search for the singing, non-percussive tone, I whanged the daylights out of it."

More recently, the Peabody-trained superstar Awadagin Pratt has expressed his frustration as a student over the difficulty of finding a dependable practice instrument. Another Peabody graduate, now a member of the faculty, recalls struggling for years on an old upright until a generous benefactor kindly agreed to co-sign the loan that enabled him to buy a remanufactured Steinway.

All of which is to say there is a real need for the kind of small-scale musical philanthropy that would make quality instruments available to gifted piano students who otherwise never would be able to afford them.

Baltimore is fortunate in having many public-spirited music lovers who have contributed generously to its orchestra, opera company and chamber music societies. Could not a group of music-loving benefactors come together to establish a fund to help outstanding young pianists acquire instruments?

Such instruments needn't be new, or unreasonably expensive. A properly restored Steinway, Mason-Hamlin or Knabe piano, for example, has the potential to sound and play at least as well as it did the day it came from the factory. It is not unusual for some fine older instruments to get even better after a thorough refurbishing.

Moreover, the Mid-Atlantic region is home to several nationally .. recognized, highly skilled artisans who specialize in high-quality piano restorations. Their work has set the standard for craftsmanship and musical refinement among knowledgeable buyers as well as among their peers in the piano technician fraternity.

Judging from recent visits to the workshops of fine area piano restorers, the cost of purchasing four or five excellent restored instruments should work out to be no more than the cost of putting on a couple of symphony orchestra concerts or a single performance at the opera.

Yet each instrument would represent a long-term investment in the development of a young artist whose subsequent career surely would redound to the credit of this city and its musically-minded philanthropists.

Of course, provision would have to be made for transporting, tuning and maintaining the instruments. And the benefactors would have to establish fair and equitable criteria for selecting gifted young pianists as recipients. But I can think of any number of well-respected teachers and performers currently residing in Baltimore who probably would be delighted to assist the fund in these tasks.

If we are serious about promoting the arts in Baltimore, it seems to me that support for such relatively small-scale efforts is just as vital to the city's cultural development as are multi-million-dollar bricks-and-mortar projects. The dissemination of the arts proceeds on many different levels, all of which one hopes ultimately will reinforce each other.

There are many possible ways to approach the task of making good instruments available to promising students. Whatever group decides to tackle the problem probably can draw valuable lessons from the foundations that already assist string players. But it also may have to improvise, at least in the beginning stages. There are no exact models for such an effort.

Yet clearly the need is there. And, happily, so are the resources. We are, after all, a city that historically has taken its music-making very seriously. Given a little encouragement, sooner or later Baltimore and its citizens surely will rise to the challenge.

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