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Why Do Pianists Know So Little About Pianos?

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Whenever possible, Ms. Uchida brings her own piano, which is unusual among pianists, even major ones. (Vladimir Horowitz, in his later years, often played his own piano, or one reserved specifically for him by Steinway; more recently, Krystian Zimerman has almost always traveled with his instrument, and understands its mechanics thoroughly.) At her home in London, Ms. Uchida has three concert grands, and keeps another “parked in Germany,” she said, making it easier to transport it to halls and recording studios in continental Europe. Obviously, the logistical challenges of moving a piano long distances are considerable — not to mention the expense. Do institutions cover the cost? While it’s “case by case,” Ms. Uchida said, usually not.

But she put this expense in context. “I have no excess otherwise,” she said. “I don’t need country houses, expensive jewelry, expensive cars, special collections of whatever.”

She does avoid shipping to the United States, however — except once, some years ago, when she went on tour with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra of Munich to South America and New York. “The South American pianos were not to be recommended,” she said. So she brought her own, which she also used for a concert at Carnegie Hall.

It’s not hard to imagine why pianists might long for this luxury of always being able to perform on their own instruments. Still, Mr. Tao made an affecting argument on behalf of adaptability.

“I see the reality of being a pianist as a gift, an opportunity that expands the idea of what technique in music can be,” he said. The notion that you practice a performance to perfection at home and then repeat it in a concert is “taken off the table,” he added. “With every new instrument, you have to be humbled a bit, and develop a connection to the logic within your playing.”

Back at my apartment, the technician finally dropped by, tuned my piano and made mechanical tweaks to a few of the keys. Afterward it piano felt and sounded vastly better. I have no idea what was involved.

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