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Tickling the Ivories, With a Turkish Twist

'Time for Carolyn to start piano lessons," I thought, prodded by the extraordinary talent of one of her friends.

In the Ankara, Turkey, of the late 1960s, pianos were not a glut on the market, but when one did become available through a friend, we bought it with the recommendation that we have it tuned..

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"I believe it's a good Viennese make, dating from 1812," our friend said. The thrill of owning a musical antique added spice to the whole idea.

Ankara sprawls over seven hills, and has an unusually arid climate, not conducive to keeping pianos in tune.

The piano tuner arrived with his kit, and worked for more than an hour. I could hear the improvement as he progressed, except for the essential octave below high C.

He tried again and again, then laughed and said, "It will not hold! Are you planning to go to the United States this summer?"


He opened an American catalog listing the various tools and oils of his trade. "It needs this oil," he said. "If you can bring it back with you, I can tune the piano properly, and it will stay in tune longer."

Three trips to Turkey during the 1960s had made us all too aware of Turkish feelings about American products: Turks liked, needed, and wanted them. However, the price of the oil was minimal, and certainly one could not start a child on piano lessons with an out-of-tune instrument. Besides, who could tell how many other pianos in Ankara would benefit? Here was an opportunity to better musical education!

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I brought the tuner the oil, and lessons started. The piano was so old that it had real ivory keys of a dismal grayish-yellow color.

"Toothpaste!" I told Carolyn. "I'll clean them very carefully with toothpaste. The American brand we had brought back with us was advertised as "whitening," but it failed to dazzle and was soon used up.

Nevertheless, Hamza Bey, my husband's right-hand man at the office, was delighted with the instrument just as it was and began dropping by in the evening.

He was a roly-poly man, full of smiles and joie de vivre. He loved children and had appointed himself our resident Turkish uncle. A bandmaster in his youth in the Turkish Army, he played several instruments and had a fine repertoire of military marches. He pounded them out enthusiastically, making the windows rattle and the glasses on the shelves tinkle.

Usually he completed the evening's performance with a bravura "Cavalry Charge," played loudly enough, we feared, to splinter our antique and our reputation with the neighbors.

Carolyn stomped off to her room in tears. "He'll ruin my piano!" Her teacher was a harpsichordist with a delicate touch, and the contrast overwhelmed her.

We made polite excuses to Hamza, who offered amends to Carolyn by rendering in his rich baritone, "How Do You Do Do, Mister Brown?" a song dating from the early days of children's radio. How he learned it I couldn't imagine.

How do you do do, Mees-tair Brown?

How do you DO do, do do DO do?

How do you do do, Mees-tair Brown?

The following day, our downstairs neighbor knocked on the door. "Was that Hamza playing and singing last night?"

"Oh, did we disturb you? We're so sorry, but he's hard to stop once he gets started."

"I know," he smiled. "I was in the Army with him. I recognized his repertoire. Unmistakable! Please tell him I'd like to see him and talk about old times."

WHEN we left Ankara we sold the piano to a friend who wanted his daughter to start lessons. We told him about cleaning the ivories with toothpaste, and the "Cavalry Charge."

Carolyn, though musical, never equaled her friend's talent, but she has keen memories of Hamza, and of learning that the rules of Turkish hospitality forbid stalking out of the room while a guest thumps on one's fragile piano and invokes Mr. Brown.

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