How sweet the sound

I couldn’t take it anymore. My audience was getting frustrated, too. I’d struggled with this particular piano for nearly 3 years, using the soft pedal continuously to tone down its harshness, leaving me with a sore hip and a cranky disposition. Then, at my urging, the piano was tuned. Somehow after that the white keys were uneven; some keys stuck when I played them, others didn’t sound at all. I never imagined a tuning could make this sorry piano worse. Yet it did.

After a performance in March, a man in my audience asked if I would talk to the activities director about getting a better piano. “We can’t say anything as residents here, but you can,” he told me. Although I didn’t understand why my influence should be greater, I made a pitch for replacing the spinet with a good digital piano, which wouldn’t need tuning or maintenance. Higher-end models simulate the resonance of the vibrating strings of an acoustic piano and produce a beautiful tone.

I wasn’t surprised at the terse response: “A new piano is not in our budget.” I’ve noticed major redecorating at this facility over the last year: new paint and carpeting throughout, new artwork on the walls, silk plants galore. And odd accent pieces like an empty photo album placed on an end table, and frames set up here and there, all displaying the same stock photo—the one already inside when the frames were purchased. But no money for a piano upgrade. Such is the state of our increasingly corporate-run housing for the elderly. It isn’t the activities director’s fault.

So in April I brought my own keyboard, full-sized but still portable at 35 pounds. I set up in front of the fireplace, under the big flat-screen television. The residents enjoyed the novelty of watching me unpack the instrument and sort out cables and cords. And because I stand when I play my keyboard, they decided I looked “like a rock star.”

The first advantage of my new approach was clear before I played a single note: I could face my audience instead of the wall. I started off with “April in Paris.” The air in the room changed. My listeners had heard me play this song before. Now they were hearing it again, for the first time. Oh, THIS is how it’s supposed to sound! For the rest of the hour, they were completely attentive to the music. That doesn’t happen often.

I had worried taking my own keyboard would be like saying, “Your piano isn’t good enough.” Now I realize sometimes that’s exactly what needs to be said. Of course it was more work to lug the keyboard, stand, and various accessories, but completely worth it. I was able to give my listeners the kind of musical experience I want them to have.

My last song that day was “Unforgettable,” a Nat King Cole favorite. Margaret sat serenely a few feet from my side, eyes closed. As the sound of my final chord faded away, she whispered, “Again, please.”

Yes, let’s do that.

Copyright © 2014 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
All rights reserved.

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This entry was posted in Audiences, Piano performance, Pianos, Volunteering. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to How sweet the sound

  1. Riff Noggin says:

    I hope this post finds its way to the desks of the corporate drones who so disrespect their residents. They obviously are out of touch with research on the positive effects of music. They should learn from your generosity and from the demonstrated impact of a good piano, get their money back from the piano tuner, and buy a piano!

    • Yes, it is a sad state of affairs when administrators don’t support good-quality, relevant music for their residents, provided free of charge! Especially given that music is known to be an effective way of improving the mental health of the elderly.

  2. Roger Wise says:

    Does your piano put out enough volume on its own without having to use an external amp?

    • Yes, more than enough. I only need to set the volume about halfway up in order to be heard across a large room. (Of course, I’m not competing with any others instruments; I’m playing solo.) My keyboard has built-in speakers that face outward toward the audience, rather than upward as in some models.

  3. Judie says:

    You certainly go above and beyond what most volunteers would do. Good for you. I am sure most of your audience very much appreciates your thoughtfulness. You go girl!!

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