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The piano keys a mature devotion

As more adults take up the instrument -- itself an object of fascination -- piano parties offer a relaxed kinship that also is bolstered online.

January 27, 2008|Swati Pandey | Times Staff Writer

The moment Perri Knize first played her piano, she knew it had to be named Marlene.

Hearing the piano's uniquely tuned sound, Knize, whose book "Grand Obsession: A Piano Odyssey" has just been published, remembered the star of "The Blue Angel" and her throaty rendition of "Falling in Love Again."

"It was like Marlene Dietrich's soul in this piano. The 1930s Hollywood glamour was there," Knize said, taking a lunch break from talking up her book at the NAMM Show in Anaheim, an annual trade event for music products retailers and manufacturers.

Knize's book shows strangers to the piano that each instrument has a personality, and devoted buyers such as Knize will search for the right one with an Ahab-like zeal. "Grand Obsession" traces her long quest for the right instrument, her restoration of its voice, and her discovery of its origins in a European forest.

Her search would have been impossible without the help of an online tribe of piano aficionados who became her social network and her book's supporting characters.

Many of them, like Knize, took up piano later in life -- becoming part of the fastest-growing demographic of new piano students, according to the Music Teachers National Assn. That piano lessons are increasingly the purview of adults means that the recital has receded in importance, often replaced by the piano party -- which has all the piano performance, none of the judgment, and much more alcohol.

Frank Baxter, founder of, the chat forum that plays a big part in "Grand Obsession," explained social piano playing.

"The expectation people have of piano is of a concert pianist with the tailcoat and everyone shushing everyone else," he said. "We're not that type of group. There are no snobs among us, and if there are, we knock them off their pedestal. We're here to have fun."

Baxter launched his current site in 2001. Since then, membership has gone from about 100 to well over 28,000. About 150 new members receive their member numbers each week (Baxter claims No. 1). They organize monthly parties in cities around the country, from a two-day affair at four homes each autumn in Cape Cod, Mass., to smaller gatherings with a Southern California-based group that takes credit for launching the trend six years ago in Long Beach. Baxter hopes to organize a piano cruise, with members providing the entertainment.

Brenda Dillon, a piano teacher and project director of the National Piano Foundation, said the demand for fun, adult piano classes "is like a tsunami." She added, "We're encouraging piano parties. If we create a nonstressful environment, they keep enrolling."

Knize, who attended her first piano party at a teacher's behest, became Piano World member No. 138, attending parties and organizing some too. She devotes a chapter of "Grand Obsession" to a "piano crawl" she planned -- a chance for members from as far as Bucharest, Romania, to sample pianos at various Manhattan dealers.

So it was only appropriate that Knize's tour for her book, which has been getting strong reviews, began with a "pianothon" in New York -- including demonstrations of several pianos and a roaming party along that city's "Piano Row" -- followed by a piano party in Southern California last weekend.

About two dozen guests gathered around a gleaming black grand piano in the living room of Steve Miller (member No. 14) in Yorba Linda, sharing wine and food while good-naturedly interrupting Knize's reading. One guest asked another, "Are you going to cry now?" after one poignant line. And when Knize described members' "combativeness," another interrupted with, "How can you say that?"

Conversation sounded as if this might have been a wine tasting, only the tourist anecdotes of Europe involved piano factories instead of vineyards and dropped foreign names were those of famous piano makers, not vintners.

Penny Arevalo, an Orange County resident who boasts member No. 13, described a Mason & Hamlin piano she once played as "sweet and soft and fuzzy." She came to the party to meet Knize, who included Arevalo as a character in her book but had never met her in person. Still, they greeted each other as old friends, with a simultaneous "Hiiii" and a hug.

Knize also met Arevalo's family -- her husband and 13-year-old son had just performed "Wipe Out" on piano and guitar for the crowd, and her 9-year-old daughter was busily reading Knize's book.

"A piano is just like wine or chocolate; it's a quality, luxury thing that people are passionate about," said Arevalo. "It's so fun to try them all since you can't buy them all."

Arevalo also praised piano parties for piquing her son's musical interest at age 6, when he watched a PianoWorld member's performance.

"He was enraptured," she said. "You can't do that anywhere else. You can't walk right up next to a pianist in a concert hall."

'The folk aspect of the piano'

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