The Piano Shop on the Left Bank: Adult Piano Lessons in Paris

by | Feb 1, 2011

One of my dearest friends, Jacqueline, recently asked me to suggest a well-written book that was free of frightening suspense or family trauma. I sent her a list of my favorite literary chick-lit, but had she been taking adult piano lessons, I would have recommended Thad Carhart’s memoir, The Piano Shop on the Left Bank: Discovering a Forgotten Passion in a Paris Atelier. Published in 2001, the book has a spot of honor on my bookshelf as classical piano music classic for its ability to transport the reader to the streets, shops and houses of Paris as well as to the many upright pianos and grand pianos contained within.

(I should come clean that my memoir-in-progress would not meet Jacqueline’s criteria for a subject. However, in an interesting twist, she recently served as a reader for the second draft of my book, girding herself during the suspenseful moments. Much to my relief, she praised the writing.)

Back to this blog’s Book Pick for February. Carhart’s reflective, leisurely prose makes for a satisfying read, whether on the train or propped up on a pillow before bedtime.  His desire to infiltrate the mysterious piano shop in his Left Bank neighborhood, his ensuing search for a piano, and his experiences taking adult piano lessons and finding a proper instructor for his daughter all captivate.  Adding texture throughout the narrative are Carhart’s descriptions of the narrow streets, antique shops, and private living rooms of Paris, where Carhart lived for a time as a boy and then returned to as an adult.

The book, however, is not purely personal history, such as classic memoirs like Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes or Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club.  Carhart weaves his personal experiences on the piano with informative chapters on the workings of the piano’s innards, the process of tuning a piano, and piano manufacturing.  Although these chapters held my interest, not the least because of Carhart’s engaging writing, I gravitated towards the sections of the book where I encountered the author at the piano, both as a boy and an adult.

I found the chapter on his foray back to adult piano lessons particularly thrilling. Here at last was someone who understood on an intimate level the experience of studying the piano when one’s legs are long enough, when seated at the piano bench, to reach the floor. “It was an unexpectedly pleasant form of self-discipline,” writes Carhart, “this travail wasn’t for my parents or for the teacher or for the year-end recital. This was for me.”


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