In the autumn of her forty-third year, Perri Knize realized that the piano was all she wanted to do with her life. Startled by the quiet force of her intentions, she enrolled in adult piano lessons and set out to purchase a serviceable used upright. Her search for a piano led her from her home in Missoula, Montana to New York City, where she fell hard for a new Grotrian grand piano. Knize refinanced her home to fund the grand, yet when her beloved Marlene (nicknamed for the sultry star Dietrich) arrived in Montana, the pealing treble had gone dead.
Grand Obsession: A Piano Odyssey, my October book selection, narrates Perri Knize’s suspenseful, emotional, and ultimately epic story to restore Marlene. I admired Knize’s vivid prose, equally adept at describing a sawmill owner cutting spruce for a Grotrian soundboard to the qualities of Marlene’s sound. The Grotian’s middle section, she writes, was “smoky and mysterious, as if rising from the larynx of a great contralto.”
What captivated me the most about Grand Obsession was the force of its ideas. Knize probes why Marlene’s sound has attracted her, as well as the reasons underlying why the sound is so difficult to restore. The author’s journey takes her to worlds not frequented by adult piano students: the home of a contemporary composer fascinated by the overtone series and the factory floor of a still-thriving nineteenth-century piano manufacturer. She develops a friendship with a gifted piano tuner who seeks, through his tunings, to “ride the crest of the wave of the expanding universe.”
In the course of her quest, she grasps the contradictions underlying a passion for classical piano music: the limited tonal range of the piano versus the infinite joy the music creates within us.
Perri Knize recently joined me for this exclusive two-part interview for GRAND PIANO PASSION™:
“If only I could play this piano every day,” you write in Grand Obsession, “I could be the pianist I always have dreamed of becoming.” In what ways are you now closer to achieving your dream?
Well, I may never become that pianist, but I have different motives for playing the piano now than when I started. My aspirations as I expressed them in the book were rather grandiose, but in the intervening years I have learned to focus on and appreciate the rewards of simply being with the piano as I am in the present. That doesn’t mean I don’t work hard at it.
After Grand Obsession was published, I was contacted by a very gifted teacher here in Missoula, Christopher Hahn, a professor at the University of Montana School of Music. Chris offered to teach me using the Royal Conservatory of Toronto method, a systematic method of study requiring the student to learn multiple facets of musicianship simultaneously.
Because there are so many basic aspects of playing the piano that I never properly learned, this approach has been excellent for me. Chris’ experiments with teaching technique have truly transformed my experience of being at the piano, so that I enjoy a greater physical facility. But his program required that I leave the advanced-intermediate repertoire I had been playing and go back to basics in technique, theory, sight-reading, rhythm—all the fundamentals, the building blocks, of becoming a pianist.
Rebuilding from the ground up is a strenuous if rewarding process. But by going back to basics, Chris assures me, I am building the foundation to tackle the repertoire I’ve always loved but have never been able to play. Currently I’m back to advanced-intermediate repertoire. I just jumped over Level 7 in the program and am back at Level 8. Now I am much better at making the sounds I hear in my head with my fingers. And the kinesthetic sensations of being at the piano have become deeply pleasurable.
Grand Obsession is all about finding, losing, and reclaiming a great piano. Having a talented piano—as my technician friend Marc Wienert calls it— is a tremendous asset; however, having a talented piano teacher is far more important. And no matter how wonderful your piano is, nothing can replace putting in the hours at the keyboard.
I will say that writing Grand Obsession gave me a huge leg up on my piano studies. Because he had read my book, Chris immediately knew and understood me as a musician in ways that he might never have otherwise. I like to think that he takes me more seriously as a student because of it, despite the fact that he has far younger students who are far more gifted—and who devote a lot more time to practice that I do! The hour I spend with him each week is always the best hour of my week.