“But see how the strings of the piano attach to the hitch pins on the frame at the far end, and then they’re stretched – with great tension – across the bridges to the tuning pins at this end. There is tremendous compression between those points. So much so that it creates and holds a sort of bulge in the soundboard, which is called the crown. I love that image of a crown. Because it really is the crowning glory of the sound itself. It gives the music incredible beauty because of that strength – because it bears the tension, the compression, the stress of it all, with such integrity. Beauty has a lot of sources, Quinn. Not all of them are easy or pleasant. Some are almost unbearable. But the beauty that comes out of it can be exceptional because of it.”
I’ve been studying the piano lately. Not how to play it. But studying the instrument itself (more specifically, the grand piano) – its design and makeup, its pieces and parts, its materials and internal workings. It’s for a new book I’m writing (the paragraph above is from one of the chapters). And for reasons of plot development, I’ve had to learn about the functionality of all the hidden bits of the piano – how they interact with each other, how they build on each other for a greater purpose. It’s turning into a rather remarkable life metaphor I’m finding.
One of the most meaningful truths about the piano I’ve discovered is the astounding amount of stress and tension it maintains – in almost every part of it. In the soundboard, the strings, the bridges. In the tiny hitch pins, mere ounces in weight and fractions of an inch in size. In the great cast iron frame that is half the weight of the entire piano itself, and sometimes more than eight feet in length as it braces the outer shape of the instrument and holds together the internal integrity of it.
Another of the piano’s hidden attributes is that most of its notes are made up of more than a single string – typically as many as three. Each is tuned to an ever-so-slight degree higher or lower than the one next to it, which creates a noticeably fuller, richer, more robust sound than one string alone could ever be capable of producing.
The more I’m learning, the more I see similarities to our human selves, our human condition – our human possibilities.
Not long ago, I came across a very old interview with British actor Michael Caine, in which he stated that quite early in his stage acting career, he was in a class and was supposed to make an entrance through a door. But a chair had accidentally fallen across the door and blocked his entrance. He wedged his head around the door and pointed out the situation to the teacher-director, who responded: “Use the difficulty.” Caine questioned what the teacher meant, and was told: “If it’s a comedy, trip over the chair … if it’s a drama, pick up the chair and throw it. Use the difficulty.” He said to this day, that has been his life mantra for himself and his entire family: If a difficulty confronts you, determine how you can use it as a benefit. Incorporate it into your life decisions and directions.
I think that is remarkably wise and intriguing. I also think it is remarkably piano-like.
All of the tension and stress within the piano is used to the advantage of its intended purpose. It has been designed so that its inherent tension is shared among all its parts, with compatibility and equality. It is held together with great strength so that no one part is allowed to break under the strain. And no one part is more important or more critical than another. None of it works alone. Even its strings are purposefully tuned one to another – yet no two are exactly alike. And in the end, it produces a remarkable voice of exquisite beauty – a gift of singular grace for everyone to hear.
Perhaps we are meant to be and do the same. We are certainly living under stress in difficult times. Perhaps we are meant to “use the difficulty” – perhaps to hold each other together with intentional strength, to give each other greater voices. Perhaps we are meant to produce a new type of integrated beauty, with a grace and integrity we have not yet known. Perhaps we are meant to “be more piano.”