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.