The moment Perri Knize first played her piano, she knew it had to be named Marlene.
Hearing the piano's uniquely tuned sound, Knize, whose book "Grand Obsession: A Piano Odyssey" has just been published, remembered the star of "The Blue Angel" and her throaty rendition of "Falling in Love Again."
"It was like Marlene Dietrich's soul in this piano. The 1930s Hollywood glamour was there," Knize said, taking a lunch break from talking up her book at the NAMM Show in Anaheim, an annual trade event for music products retailers and manufacturers.
Knize's book shows strangers to the piano that each instrument has a personality, and devoted buyers such as Knize will search for the right one with an Ahab-like zeal. "Grand Obsession" traces her long quest for the right instrument, her restoration of its voice, and her discovery of its origins in a European forest.
Her search would have been impossible without the help of an online tribe of piano aficionados who became her social network and her book's supporting characters.
Many of them, like Knize, took up piano later in life -- becoming part of the fastest-growing demographic of new piano students, according to the Music Teachers National Assn. That piano lessons are increasingly the purview of adults means that the recital has receded in importance, often replaced by the piano party -- which has all the piano performance, none of the judgment, and much more alcohol.
Frank Baxter, founder of PianoWorld.com, the chat forum that plays a big part in "Grand Obsession," explained social piano playing.
"The expectation people have of piano is of a concert pianist with the tailcoat and everyone shushing everyone else," he said. "We're not that type of group. There are no snobs among us, and if there are, we knock them off their pedestal. We're here to have fun."
Baxter launched his current site in 2001. Since then, membership has gone from about 100 to well over 28,000. About 150 new members receive their member numbers each week (Baxter claims No. 1). They organize monthly parties in cities around the country, from a two-day affair at four homes each autumn in Cape Cod, Mass., to smaller gatherings with a Southern California-based group that takes credit for launching the trend six years ago in Long Beach. Baxter hopes to organize a piano cruise, with members providing the entertainment.
Brenda Dillon, a piano teacher and project director of the National Piano Foundation, said the demand for fun, adult piano classes "is like a tsunami." She added, "We're encouraging piano parties. If we create a nonstressful environment, they keep enrolling."
Knize, who attended her first piano party at a teacher's behest, became Piano World member No. 138, attending parties and organizing some too. She devotes a chapter of "Grand Obsession" to a "piano crawl" she planned -- a chance for members from as far as Bucharest, Romania, to sample pianos at various Manhattan dealers.
So it was only appropriate that Knize's tour for her book, which has been getting strong reviews, began with a "pianothon" in New York -- including demonstrations of several pianos and a roaming party along that city's "Piano Row" -- followed by a piano party in Southern California last weekend.
About two dozen guests gathered around a gleaming black grand piano in the living room of Steve Miller (member No. 14) in Yorba Linda, sharing wine and food while good-naturedly interrupting Knize's reading. One guest asked another, "Are you going to cry now?" after one poignant line. And when Knize described PianoWorld.com members' "combativeness," another interrupted with, "How can you say that?"
Conversation sounded as if this might have been a wine tasting, only the tourist anecdotes of Europe involved piano factories instead of vineyards and dropped foreign names were those of famous piano makers, not vintners.
Penny Arevalo, an Orange County resident who boasts member No. 13, described a Mason & Hamlin piano she once played as "sweet and soft and fuzzy." She came to the party to meet Knize, who included Arevalo as a character in her book but had never met her in person. Still, they greeted each other as old friends, with a simultaneous "Hiiii" and a hug.
Knize also met Arevalo's family -- her husband and 13-year-old son had just performed "Wipe Out" on piano and guitar for the crowd, and her 9-year-old daughter was busily reading Knize's book.
"A piano is just like wine or chocolate; it's a quality, luxury thing that people are passionate about," said Arevalo. "It's so fun to try them all since you can't buy them all."
Arevalo also praised piano parties for piquing her son's musical interest at age 6, when he watched a PianoWorld member's performance.
"He was enraptured," she said. "You can't do that anywhere else. You can't walk right up next to a pianist in a concert hall."
'The folk aspect of the piano'
Each guest had ready reasons for coming to piano parties too. Del Fandrich, who builds pianos and whose brother worked on Knize's piano, doesn't play but loves simply "the sound of the instrument and the musician's soul in the air."
Len Poche, a first-time piano party attendee from Fullerton, remembered that pianos were once in every bar, "even less reputable places."
Frank Baxter, who also attended, thinks it's the simplicity of the instrument compared to the guitar or the saxophone. "You can sit down and play one note at a time," he said. "You don't need to know the notes, or even the alphabet. You just need A through G and one finger."
Baxter also pointed out that it's easier to enjoy the piano now. Those who don't want to invest in private lessons can hook up keyboards to computer programs. And for those whose pianos are more furniture than music makers, companies such as PianoDisc turn the instruments into high-tech player pianos, connected to iPods or DVDs of concert pianists.
But for Steve Miller, the party's host, the piano is already quite high-tech in itself while still having a low-tech appeal. "They're beautiful mechanically, they have 10,000 parts," he said. "But it's wood, leather, felt. It's an organic object."
Knize's love for the piano began in a moment of solitude, as she drove the Montana countryside listening to Arthur Rubinstein play Chopin waltzes and entering what she calls in her book "a piano-induced rapture." After years of on-and-off lessons, she realized that learning music as an adult meant having the physical, emotional and mental maturity the piano demands.
Born into a musical family -- with a professional musician father who asked not whether she would like to play an instrument but which instrument -- Knize asked for piano lessons at age 8. By then, her father had already helped develop her ear, teaching her to identify repeated themes, to describe music as "juicy." (That synesthetic ability served her well in appreciating and writing about her piano: "I am swept away by powerful waves of sound -- rich, dark, and warm, with singing overtones. The middle section is smoky and mysterious. . . . The treble is bell-like and sparkling; it hangs in the air, full of color, a shimmering northern lights.")
But since the family couldn't afford piano lessons, Knize took up the flute instead, only to quit when she realized she didn't have the skill to be a professional flutist. Knize studied philosophy in school and briefly pursued graphic design. Still, she said, "I was miserable , and I had to think back to the last time I had a dream."
Her ideal job in high school had been to be a fire lookout -- but technology made most of those jobs obsolete. Knize found work with the U.S. Forest Service, driving to Montana with her dog at age 27. With no one to talk to, Knize said, "I got the writing bug." She became an environmental policy reporter, shifting gears to write a book about piano after again following a calling, this time at an age when many think their inner voices are telling them to procure sports cars.
"When you get to your 40s you start being cognizant of the fact that you're halfway through your life," she said. "You start taking inventory of your dreams, and if you haven't already done so, it's time to make your dreams happen."
She began piano lessons with the ambition of eventually playing Bach's "The Goldberg Variations." And though she has begun learning its opening aria, she is less goal-oriented now, appreciating piano for the meditative quality she describes in her book.
"Footfalls the whole of a journey. Notes the whole of a work of music. Breaths, the whole of our lives. All can be a direct experience of reality -- the wholeness in the implicate order," Knize writes. "This seems to me a recipe for sanity in this delusional world."