February 7th, 2017

One unique thing about being a pianist is that unlike other musicians, we don’t have to carry our own instruments around. This can be a great perk, as long as I meet a great instrument when I arrive at a new venue! I’ve met all different kinds of pianos at concert halls over the world… each time it’s like going on a blind date!

Unveiling A New Instrument
For my very first concert in 2017 I traveled to Anchorage, Alaska, where I was invited to be the first to perform on a brand-new Steinway concert grand. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to unveil the instrument, but I was also a bit anxious! All Steinway concert grands come with an excellent reputation, but each instrument has its own unique personality. New instruments can sometimes be problematic - often they need time to breathe and settle into their own environment, like a nice bottle of wine that has just been uncorked!

When I sat first sat down at the new piano in the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts, many different “what-ifs” ran through my mind. What if it only whispers? What if it only roars? What if it has no personality? I played a few contrasting sections and breathed a sigh of relief. Thank goodness, they had picked a good instrument!

My Perfect Piano
A few years ago, I was looking for a piano on which to record my solo album. I went shopping in the unofficial Hall of Fame for concert grands - the basement of the old Steinway Hall in New York City. The best of the best pianos lived there under the care of Steinway’s excellent technicians. Every instrument was waiting to be put into action in the concert hall or recording studio. I tried piano after piano, marveling at each one. They were all astonishing in their own way!

Eventually, I sat down at Hamburg Steinway 187. One of the technicians told me it was a piano chosen by only the pickiest of pianists. I played about 15-seconds of music and looked up at my then fiancé Richard, who was with me. We both knew that it was the one - my soulmate piano! As I played, the piano responded to me like an old friend. It made me dig deeper into my own vocabulary and helped me create colors I didn’t even know that I had access to. With this piano, I realized what I truly wanted to say through the music. It felt miraculous. Together, 187 and I recorded Wild Dreams and most recently the duo album with Augustin Hadelich.

Not So Perfect
In contrast, I once arrived in a city (that shall remain nameless) to play Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3. For this piece, the pianist needs an instrument that responds quickly and can really roar. When I sat down at the piano a few days before the concert, I was mortified. The piano was a blur, with no clarity at all. It sounded as if all the notes were covered in cotton balls. No matter how much I huffed and puffed, the instrument would not go above a mezzo forte.

As the performance drew nearer, I decided to pull out my diva card just this once. I told the manager of the orchestra that we needed to find a new piano. We got in the car and drove to a few hours away to pick up a fiery, extroverted and concert-ready Steinway. I hate to be high maintenance, but it felt like the right decision for the quality of the performance. After all, what is a Rachmaninoff concerto without roaring climaxes and nostalgic cries?

Friends, what are some of the most memorable moments you’ve had with your instrument? I would love to hear your stories - good or bad!