Deciphering the Magic of the Grand Piano

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My Instagram Discover feed is currently flooded with videos of the most incredible pianists. Nimble hands effortlessly travelling over white ivory keys, performing tunes of Beethoven, Chopin and Shubert.

The sudden bombardment of piano videos coincides with me making my way through the Japanese author Natsu Miyashita’s novel The Forest of Wool and Steel. A story about young Tomura who takes up an offer to become an apprentice with a piano tuning company. I try not to think too much about the overlap with my Instagram feed and focus on a less eerie fact: this novel has made me feel closer to the piano than ever before.

There is a grand piano in my parents’ house. The black polish is slightly scratched after decades of close contact with children, and a couple of the white keys have, at some point, broken off and been glued back on. I started taking piano lessons when I was quite young and though, contrary to my expectations, I did not exceed to be a kind of millennial Mozart, I have maintained the highest respect for this instrument.

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The grand piano exudes an aura of majestic charm, even in its name. To possess it requires space and demands certain measures of maintenance. If you want to move it from one place to another, you will need to arrange for a professional piano mover, because the weight of it will most likely pull every muscle in your back. I was present when the aforementioned grand piano arrived at my childhood home-a city apartment building with narrow staircases-and the journey from the moving truck to the second floor seemed almost impossible. After countless minutes of suspense, though, the poor piano movers miraculously succeeded, and the huge instrument has now stayed in that same spot for decades.

The mountain landscape

Now, back to the book.

Tomura moves quietly through his life. He seems to float above the drama like a strong and yet trembling bubble of soap, not causing too much fuss, while working hard on mastering the craft of piano tuning. Somehow, I expected the quiet Tomura to burst and erupt in conflict. But I soon discovered that, in this story, the real drama is not with the protagonist but in his vision of the grand piano, which is compared to a beautiful mountain landscape:

Single notes began to leap ahead, entwining with the others, taking on depth in tone and timbre. From a leaf to a tree, from a tree to a forest, to the very mountains themselves. Soon it would transform into music.

Reading these scenes is like watching sound through a microscope-like deciphering the magic of the grand piano. Somehow, it makes perfect sense that the sound, flowing from a certain set of strings in the piano’s interior, set off by a woollen hammer when someone is pressing a piano key, indeed reflects a single tree on a mountain hill. We are confronted with snow and icy mountain air, but also with the respect and quiet that exists in such a landscape, alongside nature’s own drama.

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In my opinion, the mountain landscape comes close to a complete visual illustration of the grand piano’s complex mix of grandeur and tranquillity. The mountain scenery, accompanied by the sense of Tomura’s subtle and somewhat plain inner life, easily brings The Forest of Wool and Steel in the league of other Japanese literary works of our time. But most importantly, Natsu Miyashita shows a profound understanding of the instrument and masters the skill of passing it on without being boring for one second.

If everything goes according to plan, I will inherit the grand piano that I grew up with. It will have to be brought down those narrow stairs again. Until then, I will continue to flip through stunning piano videos on Instagram and dream of once again having a mountain landscape in my home.

Originally published at on March 19, 2020.

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