Once I had a dream about pianos. In the dream, my college had a secret warehouse, hidden in plain sight, in which were contained dozens of spare pianos, in various stages of repair, but all climate-controlled and in perfect tune. I discovered that the room to this building was unlocked, and I went in and sat down at a beautiful grand piano. This was a piano with no manufacturer’s stamp on the key cover and no parallel in the physical universe. I remember its dimensions well: ten feet long (full concert grands are nine feet), nine octaves (standard pianos are just over seven, with the Bosendorfer Imperial maxing out at eight), shiny as new, with divine action and soundboard. Playing that piano was a magnificent, heartbreaking experience. I can’t describe it properly, really; it had to do with the even, lush, sharp timbre and the particular feel of the keys. How sad it was to wake up and realize that I could never play that piano again, because it did not exist.
Playing that piano in my dream was a fascinating experience. It’s one thing to do something in a dream that you’ve never done — kiss a woman you’ve never kissed, for instance — and feel the emotional response. It’s quite another to do something that isn’t possible in the physical universe, like play a piano with impossible sonic properties and unrealistic dimensions, and have it feel real and inspire real emotions. (Although possibly I was just dreaming up David Rubinstein’s piano.) I don’t suppose any piano I ever play in real life will play quite like that ideal piano in my dreams.
I think this is about more than just pianos. No person can lead a perfect life, just as no one can play a perfect piano. At the same time, one does experience moments of perfection. How is one supposed to react to the fleeting nature of those moments? How does one experience an ordinary piano as anything other than ordinary when one has played an extraordinary piano in one’s dreams?
In truth, I’ve played some extraordinary pianos in real life, too. The two best ones I actually played in the same day. I went to a music school in Arizona to audition for a scholarship, and was presented with what I believe was a Hamburg Steinway L. That’s only the 6-foot grand, not a large piano by any means, but the action and sound quality were delightful. Later that day, getting a sample lesson with a member of the piano faculty, I had an opportunity to play a couple of notes on his seven-foot Falcone, a collector’s instrument hand-crafted by an American master pianomaker. There were two pianos in the studio, and of course the Falcone was his; I was allowed to use the consolation prize of a seven-foot Steinway B, which was pretty magnificent in itself. I surreptitiously played a chord on the Falcone on my way out — I’m sure he wondered why I was touching his piano — and I had the feeling of touching a spectacular instrument.
How does one “settle” for such joys? David Rubenstein wasn’t content with the merely great pianos; neither was Santi Falcone, who made the piano I played in the professor’s studio. Unwilling to settle for what pianos they had, they devoted their lives to making the pianos of their dreams. Rubinstein is now hoping someone will pay $350,000 for his piano. Falcone makes gourmet chocolates and wonders wistfully how he got pushed out of his own company by rich investors.
I know now that I am not like them. It’s not that I’m satisfied with the merely great pianos; it’s that I’m much happier when I don’t make enormous sacrifices chasing a dream. I have begun to settle for the good and the great in my life. It’s a stage I’ve always dreaded and am now, strangely, coming to enjoy. There’s a peace in accepting that I am building a good life, one that I value and that makes me happy, one in which I can become comfortable. What bothers me is the wistfulness. It’s not a good feeling, but a sort of dull ache, not as bad as I feared it would be, but not as absent as I had hoped. It is not even directional, really; I can’t tell whether the piano in my dreams is what I really want. I do know that it is not worth the trouble of getting it.
Still, its memory throws the pianos of my life into stark relief. I have done well, I am going to do even better, but I will never quite do my best. I am happy, I am becoming happier, but there is a level of happiness that I will never attain. This makes me a normal human being, which is fine. But I am not quite sure what to do about that piano in my dreams.