In August 2013, a friend and I drove to Titusville, PA to check out some skinny keys. This was my first experience with a nonstandard piano, and as the date approached, my butterflies grew frantic. It would seem an insignificant thing to play an instrument only slightly smaller than the one you've been playing every day for twenty years, but as someone who struggles with both the octave and 30K in music conservatory debt, it might just be a game-changer.

The road trip looked like this: I would drive from Cleveland to Philadelphia to pick up my friend K-Sleazy Uptown Downtown (henceforth referred to as Kelsey) and together we'd continue to a small farming area of the country largely ignored by Google Maps and GPS satellites.

I asked Kelsey to come along for several reasons: 1) I figured I'd be grossly emotional and needed someone weirdly attracted to mental collapse to capture the moment on film; 2) the six-hour second leg of the journey would require the most entertaining of car companions; 3) her camera is better than mine.

Kelsey and I are the kind of friends who spare one another no homely or unappetizing detail. We spent a few years basically conjoined at CIM and even dated briefly before realizing that our 10 a.m. waking schedule and marathon UFO documentary-watching were better suited for life in a man cave than the power couple we were obviously not destined to become. In the end, though, neither of us could imagine getting through the grind without the other. I'm a tie-dye matryoshka doll whose mind operates like a carnival prize-wheel; she's a tall blonde who kick-flips through life without a helmet—the kind of slow-burning girl who likes to party with the ghosts of our forefathers.

The start of our road trip was a propitious one. Ten minutes into the drive Kelsey tested her industrial grade video camera and, with the device pointed at my face, informed me that the lens could stay dirty because it “looks better this way”.


We took the highway for a few hours before exiting onto increasingly agrarian terrain. There's a certain rustic allure about this countryside. Stretches of uncultivated forest, divided by barns with towering silos. Road signs encouraging vehicles and horse-drawn buggies to coexist. Endless cows. It was good that our surroundings were pleasant, because our planned six-hour journey had amassed an extra four hours of wandering completely lost through Amish country.

Three mix CDs, five bags of jalapeño chips and many a desperate phone call later, we rolled up to the Steinbuhlers'. Their manicured lawn is parted by a long walkway and adorned with two metal cows. After meeting with every backroad and a different set of directions from every farmhouse, the metal cattle were like the oldest of friends, two blessed ironies inviting us to leave behind the world of gravel and hay bales and uncertainty and step into the long-envisioned realm of unfettered music-making.

David and Linda Steinbuhler frequently open their home to curious pianists and welcomed us warmly. Anticipating which keyboard I would prefer, David had already slipped a 7/8 size keyboard (also called a 5.5) into his Steinway grand. Kelsey took the following video:

In my excitement, I had mysteriously forgotten how to speak in complete sentences, a fact which is amusingly apparent in the video. There was so much to consider here: implications about ergonomics, teaching methods, practice habits, and finding the right balance of all of these things...

Even as I was experiencing sensory overload, everyone involved in this adventure exercised monk-like patience with my whims. Kelsey and I crashed at a motel—the motel—down the road and the Steinbuhlers kindly let us return in the morning so I could continue rediscovering my instrument in an inarticulate fervor.

Before piling into the car, we thanked David and Linda for their generosity with the promise of returning soon, and bade farewell to the divine bovine. Until next time.

While in T-ville, David had me try all three of his keyboards. He showed me each size, and how to slip the action stack in and out of the piano. Getting my hands on them was very revealing about the feel of healthy playing—more so than prior studies, relaxation techniques. More revelations. If you get a chance to try the keyboards, try them.

Playing the DS5.1, the skinniest keys, words sprang forward in combinations my mouth had never before assembled: “my hand is all squished”... “I keep catching two keys at once”... “my fingers are too fat”... I enjoyed having that last problem immensely.

At one point, David replaced the DS5.5 with a DS6 and we made a short video of what it's like to change the action.

The thing that resonates most about playing a Steinbuhler is how effortless is it. All the years of training and discipline weren't for nothing—with the right size, you just think the sound and it comes out.

I play a passage from a Rachmaninoff prelude on each keyboard and my thoughts wander to pianist friends, those with large hands. I'm beginning to understand what a “pianistic” composition means, something to do with the ease of thinking. I wonder how long they've shared this secret.

One year after the first visit to Titusville, it's time for another skinny fix.

And wouldn't you know, I got lost again. The good news is that this time, I recognized the place where I'd been lost before as somewhere I didn't want to be and wasted only an hour instead of four.

The bad news is that I had anticipated getting more lost than that, and was left with no choice but to scarf down four hours' worth of snacks in a quarter of the time.

David and Linda Steinbuhler were again such gracious hosts, inviting me in and (almost immediately) feeding me. Linda has made vegetables—they remember my vegetarianism. They say they don't mind me rearranging their furniture.

“Our living room's been a lot of things, but it's never been a recording studio before.”

I imagine the living room as a jungle, transformed for a shooting of the latest episode in an Amazon wilderness survival mockumentary—above the doorway, distressed spider monkeys screeching about a nearby Wild Cat; vines in lieu of curtains; the mantle adorned with parrots. Khaki-clad actors would be arriving soon, disgruntled by the smell of their hats and having to leave their trailers so early in the day.

I set up the lights, camera, mic, and ask to turn off the noisy A/C. It took four takes to produce something resembling music, and another three before I was satisfied.

The piece under fire was written by my talented composer friend Art for his CIM graduate recital. Yes, I played it at his recital, along with two other movements. No, it was not beautiful. I'd been busting my chops (sadly, only somewhat figuratively) to make them happen, and... well something happened.

Redoing these pieces is completely revitalizing. It's an amazing thing that I can prepare a decent performance with just a few hours of practice on a Steinbuhler, compared to months of struggling on a full-size keyboard. I feel a sort of internal rekindling that's hard to describe.