Piano Sonata for Three Hands

With only a week until his fifth birthday, John Henry Johnson followed his great grandmother, Nana, into her old sunroom on the chance that some of his late grandfather’s childhood toys might be stored there. Leaves and dirt caked the glass ceiling and revealed only a shadowy glimpse of the Spanish moss trailing the overhanging, antebellum oak. Dusty boxes and faded furniture blocked the windows across the back of the sunroom, and the musty slipcovers smelled like playing hide-and-seek among the dingy drapes in Nana's guest bedrooms.

Despite the gloom, Johnny's eyes widened at the treasure-trove of adventures the room promised. Why hadn’t Nana brought him here before?

"I think this is part of your grandfather's rocket game." Nana held up a bent tube. "Probably doesn't work. They don't make batteries for it anymore. Don't you scowl at me, Johnny. I have other stuff to do besides poking around in this old mausoleum looking for something to entertain you. Now, then. Maybe you could pretend it still works. Imagination is good."

Nana sounded hopeful with a flicker of impatience. So far, the morning had been long for them both. Johnny's Mom and Dad were at the lawyers again, and the last time they had left him with Nana for more than a week.

"I have a new remote-control rocket at home, and mine isn't broken." Johnny tried not to whine. He hadn't had a chance to take the rocket out of the box before his parents were arguing again, and now they had dumped him at Nana's. Besides, Nana didn't like whining, and the storeroom needed exploring.

"Oh dear." She set the bent tube aside. "I know this old computer doesn't work. All those wires . . . And this video game is too old to link to our entertainment room. . . . You keep looking John Henry. My, my. Here's your great grandfather's coffee cup. I haven't seen that in years. He always said that 'the honor you give to history determines the future that you seek,' but I'm just an old lady who likes to be able to touch her memories."

She held the cup to her breast, closed her eyes, and sighed.

"What's that, Nana?" Johnny pointed at a massive gray form pressed against the inside wall.

"I'd almost forgotten that was here." Nana smiled and set the cup aside. "It's my piano."

She bustled about moving boxes until she had cleared enough away to pull at the gray cloth covering the piano. The cloth came free with a swirl of dust that started Johnny coughing.

"Lights and ventilation," Nana demanded.

In response, a gentle breath of freshened air filled the room, and pale lights sharpened the silhouettes of  sacks of clothes and linens cluttered atop tables. Immediately, Johnny was disappointed when the lights unveiled the shadowed mystery. The piano was just dark oak furniture about the color of his mama's skin. One corner of the piano had a broken foot, and that leg balanced atop a book. Johnny had seen heavy old books decorating shelves at the neighbor's house. Now, he knew what they were used for.

Nana lifted a narrow lid that ran the length of the piano at about Johnny's eye level. A peculiar arrangement of white and black tabs lay beneath the lid. Useless as a table, not a chair, what was a piano? Johnny crept closer for a better view.

"What's it for, Nana?"

"This is how people made music before synthesizers." She indicated the length of tabs. "They played keyboards like this one."

"Keys?" Johnny examined the well-worn tabs. A few were chipped. All were discolored.

"I used to play pretty well when I was a girl, but after I married . . .  well life happens. I could never get your grandfather interested in learning when he was a boy." A smile spread across Nana's face. She pulled a bench from beneath the keyboard ledge and patted the seat. "Why don't you try?"

Johnny climbed onto the bench. Nana adjusted his position until his legs dangled beneath the keyboard center.

She pointed at a tab in front of him. "That white key is middle C. The one to its left is B--no honey, the other way--and to the left of that is A. To the right of C is D, then E, F, and G."

The keyboard looked nothing like the one on Johnny's e-tablet.

"Why don't they put the letters on the keys, Nana? I know all my letters. Numbers too."

"I don't know why they don't label the keys, Johnny. They just don't. Now, you try. Press down the middle C key. No dear, firmly. Push all the way down."

A faint tone came from the piano box. Overhead, the pitter-patter of rain splashed against the grungy ceiling and joined the C sound. A few of the larger drops dimpled the grime on the glass.

"Excellent," Nana said. "Soft. Piano. Now strike the same key very hard."

Johnny banged the key. The piano belched a louder tone followed by a coarse after-buzz.

"Perfect," Nan said. "Soft, piano. Loud, forte. Piano forte. Now press the C key and the E key."

Johnny pushed the C key, released the key, and then pressed the E key. The piano creaked, but the E key sounded different, higher than the C key.

"Excellent, Johnny, but you don't have to press them in sequence like a computer keyboard. Press them firmly and at the same time."

Johnny did, and the two tones magically blended. Johnny strained to follow the fading sound.

Nana stroked Johnny's hair and was all smiles. "I'll close the door so you can play just as loud as you please. Okay? I'll call you in an hour when lunch is ready."

"Yes, Ma'am, but how does it work, Nana. Will the batteries run down? Does it plug in the wall to recharge?"

"All the power comes from you, Johnny, from how hard you strike the keys. Inside the box are steel strings stretched tight. They need tuning without doubt, but that's for another day. When you press a key--don't worry if a few are dead, they can be fixed--anyway, when you press a key, it strikes a hammer against the steel string for that particular key, and that makes the string sing. Each key sounds a different note. When you get them singing together just right, you get music. Does that answer your question?"

Johnny nodded. He considered the keyboard until she left the sunroom and closed the door behind. Outside, the rain increased against the glass roof and washed away loose dirt and leaves. Lightning flashed, quickly followed by thunder.

Johnny smiled and pounded the keyboard with both fists to create his own thunder.

Yes, Ma'am. Hammer against steel. That felt right. Hammer against steel felt very right.

Absolute magic.


Music agent MaryLou Taliferro was smiling long before Johnny finished playing his composition. She looked fresh out of college and about Johnny's age, young to be a registered agent freshly minted in a featureless office furnished in modern nondescript. She advertised interest in new talent. That was why Johnny sought her out. She was also cute, but overly focused on maintaining a professional demeanor.

When the last note faded, Johnny lifted his hands from the keyboard and studied her face.

"Excellent, Mr. Johnson," she said. "Great possibilities. Take out the decorative fillers--"

"Embellishments." Johnny folded his antique keyboard. He wished he could have played the music for her on his piano, but there was no easy way to haul the three-hundred-kilo upright to a fifth floor office in the old music complex.

"Of course, but they're too complicated. Let others do the arrangements and orchestration. You're the composer. Anyway, simplify the melody and chords on your synthesizer so that we can register it with ISCAP. I expect a market of several million digital copies--"

"This is an antique keyboard, Ms. Taliferro, not a full synthesizer, no save feature." Johnny held up pages of music notation and pointed to the fine print near the composition title. "I put a copyright notice on the score."

"Copyrighted sheet music? Obsolete. You must have a digital version for registration. Once ISCAP analysis establishes the creative baseline for your composition and structures it into the International Music Database, you get basic protection against infringement beyond fair usage, but that won't earn you a dime without professional participation. You haven't played this in public, that's public as defined in the digital right laws?"

"Nope." Johnny forced a smile. "I know public performances are dangerous without registration and possibly illegal. I want to do this right. That's why I came to you. I want to play my stuff in public."

"Good. We don't want any public domain taint: bad for royalties and opens us to derivative lawsuits without a registered song profile. Do you know anything about digital rights?

"Not really. Again. That's why I came to you."

"Where did you study music? Didn't they cover elementary digital rights protection in your synthesizer courses?"

"I can use a synthesizer." Johnny shrugged. "In fact, I program pretty well if a little slow, but I never took a synthesizer course, I was too busy practicing piano. I compose on the piano, not on a synthesizer."

"Piano? How do you program a piano?"

"You don't program a piano, Ms. Taliferro. You play it."

"Mr. Johnson, you've got talent." She sighed. "But you and I have much to discuss."

"Sure," Johnny said. The thought of a longer conversation with her now appealed to him almost as much as playing his music in public. "How about over lunch? And call me Johnny."


A week later, they received analysis and registration confirmation from ISCAP, and Johnny went to MaryLou's office to review the result. Did she wear a light fragrance of lilac, or was it the swirl of her white, pleated skirt that made Johnny think of spring? He sat in the side chair next to her desk. The computer display filled up the wall across from the desk.

"Public domain baselines are ignored for royalty purposes." MaryLou pointed to the ISCAP analysis pie chart displayed on the wall screen. "The essential wedges for us are influences, shared genre, and innovation. Each pie slice lit up when she named it. A share of your royalties will go to the shared genre fund, in your case, an unusual jazz with classical fusion, and to the primary influences for any derivations the analysis identified in your music beyond common heritage."

"My innovation index is four percent?" Johnny shook his head at the numbers on the chart. "I thought I was being very creative."

"Four per cent is high. Music taste does not change overnight. If you get close to ten percent, chances are that no one will want to listen. Look, you've done well. Less than twenty percent of your royalties will go into the genre fund and derivation residuals, and you were creative enough to be in a good position to receive royalties based on future works that derive from yours. We pay those who lead the way."

"So this is a good result?"

"This is a great result."

"I just want to play my music in public." Well, he also wanted to kiss MaryLou Taliaferro, but he wasn't ready to admit that aloud.

"Not many venues left for that, but now you are protected. Play your heart out. More important: We are now eligible for digital download and version royalties. That's where the big money is. I've already forwarded permission to sell online. You don't mind making money, do you?"

"Money is good, but all I really want is to play in public. Don't you need my approval to sell online?"

"I would like your thumbprint, but I am your agent, authorized to act on your behalf. I acted."

"Okay, I guess. Suddenly, everything seems to be moving fast. I feel out of control." Damn. He could think better about what he wanted, if her eyes weren't so beautifully brown.

"It's your baby, Johnny, but you've got to turn the music loose if you want it to grow up. Here's my big news. My college boyfriend, Chuck, works with the We Make Music competition. He agreed to use your song as a composition base for the next orchestration-arrangement competition. That kind of publicity will generate millions of downloads for your original digital form and for the synthesizer orchestrations and arrangements."

"Boyfriend?" Too much information at once. What else had she said? Whelmed, Johnny sagged into his chair.

She gave Johnny's arm a quick pat and called up another computer screen. "If you really want to play music in public, the show publicity might get you a few appearances in some old venues."

College boyfriend. Past tense? Still hope.

"We Make Music is a live competition, right?"

"Yes. Each orchestration and arrangement competition runs for four weeks but with individual levels of competition broadcast weekly. You haven't watched it? Big ratings. People vote by downloading their favorite arrangement from the contest. Great earnings for the winners. The composer gets an upfront fee and excellent royalties from the downloads. Here's the contract--"

Johnny interjected. "I want to compete."

"--terms. Some . . . What?"

"I want to compete. I want to arrange my music for the contest performance. Do they allow the composer to compete?"

"Hmm. Some think that the composer has an unfair advantage, but I don't think there is a rule against it. However, that may not be a good idea. The competitors must be very good to qualify, and speed is important. If you really flop, it could hurt sales. Look. I can get you tickets for the front row. The host will introduce you in the audience--"

"I want to play my composition." Johnny noted the disappointment on her face, but he couldn't give up his dream. Well, he had two dreams now, but surely she could understand.

"In the contest, the arrangements and orchestrations are all done on synthesizers. It's a timed competition. The digital output is analyzed by judges and a computer for technical merit in the first round. Listeners usually don't vote by doing downloads until the second round, but you will need to use your ISCAP digital version to start every round."

"All works on a synthesizer? Is that a rule, too?"

"Uh, I don't know. Let me check with Chuck."

"I really want to play. I can arrange my own music, and I may be slow on the synthesizer, but I already know what sound I want."

"Let me talk with Chuck."


"What the hell is it?" Chuck asked.

In the background, the studio crew bustled about, cleaning up after the run through and getting ready for the broadcast.

Johnny stepped back from buffing the polish of the old piano. "It's my great grandmother's upright, refurbished and tuned to perfection."

"Whatever synthesizer you've got built into that massive box is defective," Chuck said. "The sound techs want to hear your gadget sound an A again. They said it's off from 440 hertz."

"The piano doesn't have a built in synthesizer. It makes a sound by striking a string. The digital output comes from microphones, digital samplers, and a pre-amp. Also, I prefer A at 452 hertz for a brighter sound. I don't want software correcting my pitch."

Chuck turned to MaryLou. "Is he crazy?"

"Yes. He is crazy. I tried to talk him out of it, Chuck. He won't listen."

"Well, he's off the show," Chuck said. "I'll announce technical difficulties."

"I don't think so," Johnny said. "My contract says that I'm the arbiter of my own technical difficulties, and I claim my equipment is working fine. The only way to get me off the show is for me to lose a round. I can't lose until the end of the first round."

"Then we'll get you on time limits. If you've got no way to download the basic composition into a synthesizer, how do you expect to arrange it if you get past the first round?"

"It's my music," Johnny said. "It's already in my head. Arranging it for my piano will be quasi impromptu rather than pre-programmed. I have an analog to digital converter to load my rendition onto the synthesizer, but we shouldn't need it tonight."

"Impromptu?" Chuck said. "Like ad-lib. What's he talking about?"

MaryLou sighed. "Johnny says that early jazz was all about being extemporaneous. I looked it up. He's right. It's a common part of our musical heritage. Classical musicians also did improvisation. Look, Chuck, I don't want him to do this either. This stunt could cost us millions of downloads. People expect their meticulously programmed music to be perfect. The sound from that old piano is far from perfect, and who can predict whether an improvisation will be boring or exciting?"

"You say that like it's a bad thing, MaryLou," Johnny said. He had hoped that she finally understood, but now that seemed less likely. "Modern music uses a tempered scale, but people shouldn't have to study logarithms before they can enjoy it. Sometimes you have to be in the moment."

"Let's just get on with it," MaryLou said. She looked to Chuck and extended her hands palms up. "At this point, we have little choice."

"Tonight's round is the technical merit round," Chuck said. "The judges and computer analysis will destroy him because his piano is out of tune. How can he go to the second round with an out-of tune recording? The two lowest rated of our eight contestants are eliminated tonight. He'll be the low man, gone in the first round, but I'm moving him from starting position to last. I won't have people turning us off after ten minutes. There's nothing in the contracts against that."


"It was a disaster Johnny." MaryLou put her hand to her forehead.

"The judges are only agreeing with the computer analysis." Johnny attempted a smile. "You can't blame them, but most people can't distinguish whether a note is off a few cycles per second nor the beat imprecise throughout. I was pleased with my performance, and the audience applauded. I think they enjoyed it."

"They liked it until the judges posted the scores," MaryLou said. "Maybe without the distraction, your music can recover next week, but you are out of the competition. The remaining six contestants are excellent arrangers. Your composition has good bones. The composition can still do well when it gets to the orchestration round."

"Distraction? You mean me playing the piano?"

"Playing was a stunt, Johnny. Good publicity if we made it to the next round, but you insisted on playing your piano out of tune with a faulty rhythm."

"Did you enjoy my rendition, MaryLou?"


"Did you like the way I played my music? Did you enjoy it?"

"You were enthusiastic. I liked that, but the technical scores. . . ."

"Forget the scores. Before the scores were posted, did you like it? Forget the money. Did you like what you heard?"

She hesitated and then looked into his eyes, her face filled with confusion. Her brown eyes no longer held promises for her lips to keep.

He sighed. Some dreams become real, others are impossible imaginings.

"I understand."

Johnny turned from the reflected limelight, pushed through the velour teasers, and sought the backstage exit. Someone, probably Chuck, yelled after him.

"Hey, Johnny, we're getting a lot of calls about your performance tonight. Money to be made on novelties. Can you do a playback for hifi downloads?"

Playback? Did the man understand that a piano is not a synthesizer? Each time he played Nana's piano, the music expressed different flaws and was never the same. That's what made it perfect.

Johnny made his choice, ignored Chuck, and exited the theater. Chuck could digitize the recorded performance and synthesize it without Johnny.

What about MaryLou? Could brown eyes inspire new melodies? Could heartbreak write new songs?

Outside, the setting sun was surprisingly warm and comforting. Remnants of the streaks of sunlight wove through the tall warp of buildings. In the back of his mind, a sad tune formed and suggested his next composition.


A month later, Johnny's phone chirped. He swiveled away from the old upright piano that now enjoyed prominence in Nana's remodeled sun room.  MaryLou had been right. The download royalties from the winning arrangement on the show were excellent.

"Could you come to my office?" MaryLou sounded cheerful, or perhaps, it was simply her professional persona. "Are you still angry?"

"I was never angry," Johnny said. "Just disappointed. I'll be there in a half hour."

When he arrived she was waiting at the door.

"I apologize." She led him to her desk. "I'm your agent. I should have handled the situation better. Your piano stunt may have actually increased interest. The downloads continue to do very well, Johnny, even your piano version that Scott salvaged. A rocky start, but we're back on the road to riches. Sit. Would you like coffee?"

"No thank you." Johnny waited for her to sit before he settled into the side chair. "I am working on a new composition that--"

"That's great. I can't wait to hear it, but we have more promotions to do while your current composition is still hot."

"I don't understand."

"We Make Music's sister show, We Sing Music, picked up your composition. Competition among lyricists starts next week. Incidentally, they want to change the composition name from Piano Sonata for Three Hands to something more commercial. Nobody really understands the title. They think it's about a three-handed alien."

"The title means that composition is difficult to play on the piano unless you have three hands or exceptional technical skills like Listz. Listz played separate left and right arpeggios using the fingers on either hand while he extracted the melody with his thumbs. Thalberg even used special notation for three--"

"That kind of human difficulty doesn't sell in the age of synthesizers, Johnny. No musician, no virtuoso, however talented, can compete with the complexity possible on a synthesizer. Anyway, think about another title, but wait to see whether the lyricists come up with a really good line that could be used as a title."

"Okay, but I've never watched We Sing Music. How does it work?"

"Really," MaryLou said. "Well . . . after the three leading lyrics get voted in, then another group of arrangers come back for more orchestration, but this time, they have an instrument catalog that includes several thousand digitized human voices from the world's finest singers. I'm expecting great things."




"Johnny, are you still there. Did you hear me?"

"Yeah, I heard. A thousand human voices digitized for the synthesizer to play like other digitized perfect instruments."

"It's pretty easy. The arranger or somebody sings the lyrics, and the synthesizer corrects the pitch and overlays the original voice sound with the selected human voice instrument. The arranger needs good breath control and phrasing of course, but imagine the results: Tony Bennett singing your music, or Frank Sinatra, or Ella Fitzgerald, or Louis Armstrong. All the arranger has to do is select a good voice to get a perfect singing instrument to match your music, the lyrics, and the arrangement."

Johnny shook his head in wonder. "With synthesizers playing instruments perfectly, why does anyone become a musician? Why learn to play an oboe? What's the future for musicians? Now, they've done the same for singers. Where will the new singers come from, MaryLou? "

"New singers? We occasionally get someone new from stage shows. But most shows hire the best actors available and then use a synthesized voice to enhance the performance. When someone pays a day's wages to see a premium show, no one wants to take a chance of a performer being off key. Most amateur theaters use voice enhancements too. Think of it as progress, Johnny. Audiences have become sophisticated enough that they won't accept loud as a substitute for quality."

"I understand," Johnny said. "Music is big business. Why take a risk on a new voice, when you have a catalog of thousands of successful voices who need not be paid? But how many great new voices are lost to the world when synthesizer programmers are the only artists?"

"Actually, the digitized singer's estates can get royalties. Not large because there isn't an actual performance, but--"

"No new singers? How sad for us all. When someone wants to sing in the shower, do they take a synthesizer with them?"

"Anyway, anyway. They want you in the arranger section of the first round voice competition. Apparently, your piano performance appealed to a lot of people. You've got good stage presence. People like your enthusiasm, Johnny. It's for publicity and ratings. For the prestige, VoiceTechSynth has offered you their premier synthesizer. Free, preloaded with a thousand human voice instruments. When it arrives, you should practice using the human voice instruments, you know, enunciation, phrasing, breath control, and so on. The lyric winner will have the words for you before the first voice round. You can overlay the voice to the digital version of your piano performance. You won't make it beyond the first round, of course, but your participation should up the ratings and downloads, and so everyone wins. What do you think?"

"I'll do it, but I have a better idea for how to use my piano and the lyrics. When's the last time someone played and sang in a live competition without a classic synthesized singer overlay or a digital perfect pitch enhancement on their voice?" He didn't tell her he already had his own lyrics, and that her name was in it. Save that for later, when it was too late to cancel his appearance.

"Johnny," MaryLou's eyes opened wide, but even with surprise dominating her face, she was still cute. "You wouldn't? Not again. Why?"

"This isn't about whether I will conform to today in hope of tomorrow's fame and fortune. This is about how I will honor history."

"You could derail your career." Her voice sounded less certain. Was she yielding?

"MaryLou." Johnny cocked his head to one side waiting for her approval. "It is my career."

She sighed, but a smile flickered across her lips when she shook her head. "John Henry Johnson. . . ."

"Nana only called me John Henry Johnson when I was in trouble or to summon me to dinner. With you, I'm hoping that this is an invitation to dinner."

She smiled. The smile was absolute magic.

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