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Pianos in the Dump?! I’d Rather See Snakes on Planes

August 4th, 2012 · 6 Brilliant Opinions · Random Things That Make Me Smile

I read this story in the NYTimes earlier this week about the decline in the number of Americans buying pre-owned pianos.  Many pianos, passed down through families are ending up in the dump. Yep, the garbage.    A family heirloom and beautiful musical instrument ends up in the garbage.  Are we the throw away society or what people?  What’s next – the family photos and our mothers’ wedding dresses.

I found the story so incredibly heartbreaking.  When I was a little girl my mother would often talk about getting a piano for me to learn to play.  But with seven children it was hard enough for my parents to provide the essentials – much less a “luxury” item.  My musical education was largely restricted to what ever I was offered at my NYC public school.  I never learned to read music and had few opportunities to learn about classical or jazz music.

As an adult I made an attempt to study piano.  I registered for a group class at a pretty well known music school in Cleveland, Ohio (where I was doing my medical residency training program).  There were only four students in the class. I was the only African-American.  The instructor took one look at me and started telling a story about a black male student who got a scholarship to Juilliard to study piano.  The young man got on drugs and ended up in a “flophouse”.  I wasn’t even sure what a flophouse was and I wondered why he was telling this story at a piano lesson.  Then he declared, “That was during the time that they were giving people everything for being black.” My retort, “Yep, including a hard time.”  He turned red. I filed a complaint that was something along the lines of “I’m a physician who wants to take piano lessons during my very, very spare time.  I want a piano teacher, not a sociologist or worse a piano teacher who thinks he is a sociologist.”  The instructor  sent me a muddled written apology and I moved on private lessons with a new teacher.

Unfortunately, the demands of training took over and I couldn’t pursue my music lessons.  Once I became a mother it felt like I would never have a hobby again.  And for a long time I didn’t.  However, one of the great benefits of  having kids is the opportunity to give someone the childhood you didn’t have. How’s that for second chances!

When my daughter turned five I decided to get her started on piano.  Finding a great teacher was easy.  Her teacher, a neighborhood father, had taught music at her preschool for years.  I knew he was an excellent musician with a gentle and kind spirit.  All I needed was a piano for my girl.  I didn’t and couldn’t spend 40K on a new Steinway.  I went to my favorite neighborhood boutique – The Salvation Army – and scored a very used baby grand piano for …. $500.  We were responsible for moving it from the warehouse to our home.  I didn’t even bother to get real piano movers. Lets just say that back then a six pack of beer could get you  (or your piano) very far.  With the help of a gifted piano tuner we got out piano up and running. Its no where near perfect and when my daughter was younger she was often dismayed that the piano at the recital hall “sounded so different.” (Hmmm… like all the keys work!)

Well my daughter has been playing for over six years and inspired by Adele, even sang at her last recital.  Recently she asked me if I knew who Nina Simone was.   Me:  “Yes, why do you ask?”  My daughter’s response, “My piano teacher says I sound like her.”  How’s that for building a little girl’s confidence?  I became so inspired by my daughter’s playing I started taking lessons two years  ago.  I play like a 2 year old and I don’t practice enough but guess what?- I really love it.

Pianos don’t belong in the trash.  I find it hard to believe that in a country of such enormous wealth and poverty – that there aren’t any music philanthropists interested in having these beautiful heirlooms refurbished and given to schools, nursing homes, hospitals or families that will love them.

One of my friends shared with me the story of her beloved piano and gave me permission to share it with you.   I’m not even going to try to paraphrase it because she tells the story so well herself.

I was talking about this piano earlier today with a friend.  My mother bought it for me when I was 5 years old and I’ve had it ever since. She sacrificed so much, being a single mom, to buy it for me. I cherish it with all my heart. The center picture is my mom at 19, along with my aunt, uncle, and grandparents. I hope to get a baby grand one day soon, but this will always remain a symbol of my mother’s love for me and of my love for her.    (I read this and was so touched I sent my friend a direct message. Her response follows.)

The whole story is that when I was in Guyana as a child, my grandfather had a piano, and I would sit and make up little songs and play them…no banging or anything like that. I was 2. My grandfather told my mom I might end up playing, but she did not take him seriously. When I was 4 I told her I wanted a piano, and she bought me a Fisher Price piano for Christmas. I liked it, but told her I meant a real piano. She was shocked. She enrolled me in piano lessons to see if I was serious and I took to it like a fish to water. It took her a year, but she saved the money to buy me this piano for Christmas 1969. I have had it ever since.

One last thing I’ve learned. Every piano has a story. A story that should be shared.  What’s yours?


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6 Comments so far ↓

  • Nicole

    Lovely and inspiring story (heartfelt). Thanks for always sharing of your experiences and triumphs. So many images and memories came to my mind. Yes, so true we have to stand up for our rights…and watch these subtleties/condescending tones. Our experiences brings about our children successes (if they only knew). I’m sure your mom is proud…

  • Ann

    Music in and of itself is a journey. The piano and its role in American life is such a powerful symbol of struggle, joy and family. Its unfortunate that it is sometimes viewed as a “luxury” item or aristocratic. I’m even thankful for that “racist” piano moment when I was a resident. It forced me to stand up for myself and black folks in general.

  • Jacqueline Lucas

    Ann, I am so touched and honored that you shared my story and the piano. I am going to print the whole thing out and give it to my mom…you know that 83 I have not yet persuaded her to venture onto a computer, much less the internet LOL. I will take your advice – when I find my baby grand, I will still keep this one. Blessings to you and your daughter, who clearly has great things in store for her!!!

  • Ann

    As you know, a piano can bring so much joy into a home and into one’s life. Give your mom a hug for me.

  • Tania

    I sooo relate. I am forty-eight and I have been hauling my childhood piano around with me wherever my lifes journey has taken me. Currently, it’s in a bedroom upstairs in my house. It really doesn’t fit the downstairs lay-out, but I WILL NOT part with it. Too many childhood memories. Couldn’t agree more with your post.

  • Ann

    Tania – good for you! If you do have to pass it on one day let’s hope you will find someone who will give it the love it needs. Thanks for sharing.

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