Memorization has never been my strong suit. I had spent six months just memorizing two short pieces–Handel’s E minor Sonata and the C-sharp minor Piano Prelude by Rachmaninoff for one of my college recitals. At last the day had arrived and I was finally ready to play these pieces by memory. I would play the Handel sonata on the harpsichord, then I would move to the concert grand Steinway for the prelude.
I was a romantic when it came to music and Rachmaninoff was a brilliant composer of the romantic style. This prelude began with both hands playing descending octaves. Then came three full chords, each hand overlapping the other, alternating the overlapping between each chord. From there the music exploded into alternating octave passages and multiple overlapping chords. The brooding mood of the opening measures then moved into rapid triplets before coming to a grand, dramatic finale. I would be in my element.
Like the Romantic musicians of old, I was also enamored with Baroque music. My love of classical music dates to my hearing J. S. Bach’s First Brandenburg Concerto. Thus my choice of the Handel Sonata, with its onslaught of rapid and glorious polyphony, which would complete my romantic approach to this recital.
I played the Sonata flawlessly, relishing the plucked notes of the harpsichord. I rose, took my bows, and moved to the piano.
I should have checked the piano before sitting down to play. The instrument had been wheeled in and a heavy, metal piano bench with padded seat had been set in front of it. I sat down, adjusting the bench, while moving mentally from the Baroque to the Romantic era. I began to play.
The soft, brooding octaves rose to the audience’s ears. The three full chords moved into the second set of brooding octaves, with the dynamics growing over the next set of full chords. The next set of octaves and full chords came, each stroke growing louder. Than then, reaching fortissimo, the piano rolled away from me.
The piano movers, setting up for the recital, had failed to lock its wheels. What followed happened in only a moment.
I considered my options. On my piano at home I had learned how to hook my left leg around one of the piano bench legs and with a single motion, pull it closer to the piano. But this bench was far heavier, and when I had moved it as I first sat down, the metal legs had made a loud screeching sound. I abandoned that idea.
I could also slide easily over the smooth wooden surface of my piano bench at home. But this bench had a padded leather seat. Sliding to get closer was not an option.
While the piano had rolled away from me, it had not rolled beyond my reach. Leaning forward in imitation of Glenn Gould, I continued playing. And as I played, I dug my fingers into the keys as if I could pull the instrument closer. Fortunately, I didn’t miss a beat, a note, or my outward composure. I was aware, however, of a buzz through the audience and of the sudden intensity of my professors concentrating on how I was handling this situation.
As the final chord ended my part of the recital, I vowed the next time I played a piano mounted on wheels, I would personally check them to be sure they were locked. The devil may be in the details, but he surely was in those wheels.