I play the piano. I have been plunking the keys since I was probably two or three, though my first memories are of me trying to “play along” with my mom when I was maybe four. My mom’s hands would seem to be flying over the keys, and I really wanted to be part of this magic. I would hit a couple keys at the very top of the keyboard, sure that if I played gently, it wouldn’t mess up the song. We had an old piano in our living room/dining room there in the North of Haiti. It was in the corner of the room and I remember being drawn to it. It did such amazing things.
We left that house when I was six and moved to my grandparents farm in Eastern Kentucky. We were living in a small trailer. No room for a piano. In fact, over the next ten years I did not have a Real Piano in my home. My parents got me a keyboard when I was pretty young, then later, as I pursued music more seriously, they got me a nice keyboard, a Roland with a full length keyboard and weighted keys. It also had a cool function where I could record myself playing, play back the recording, and play along with myself. This function worked great for me because I knew lots of duets and I could rarely get someone else to play the other side with me.
Over the years I learned how to keep an eye out for Real Pianos (because keyboards are great, but nothing can replace real strings and hammers and keys that respond to the lightest touch). I would enter a home and glance around, any pianos? Oh, you have a piano! Do you mind if I play? When we would travel to different churches, I would linger afterwards, waiting for everyone to leave the sanctuary so I could sneak up and maybe play a quick song on the vacated piano. I was drawn to the instrument, some kind of magnetic force I wasn’t even aware of.
Of course, I have always said, it would be a lot easier to play guitar. Then you just carry your instrument around with you. Alas, a pianist does not have that luck. But, I have good memories of all the pianos I have discovered and stolen a couple moments from over the years.
The church we attended when I was in eighth grade had a giant Steinway Concert Grand Piano. And for some reason I can’t remember, my father had to be at the church pretty regularly during the week, and sometimes he would take me after school, and the secretary gave me permission to go in and play. I remember sitting in the auditorium-like sanctuary, all the lights off except a little lamp on the piano. I remember the keys were a lot heavier than I was used to. I would belt out the grandest song I could come up with, and at that age, it wasn’t anything too grand, and I would marvel at the richness of it all. It was heavenly.
Later, when we were back in Haiti and lived close to the Baptist Seminary, I would often walk down our mountain that we lived on, go to the seminary and get the key to the Chapel where they had a lovely brand new upright piano. It was draped in a thick, quilted, fitted cover. You had to pull it off just-so or it would get stuck on a corner. None of the keys were chipped. There weren’t any notes you had to avoid because they would stick. The sound was warm. The empty chapel with it’s wooden benches making a holy atmosphere for creating music.
I remember when we moved to Bethel, Alaska right before my sixteenth birthday. We had only been there a couple days and one of the local pastors came and introduced himself, invited us out to lunch with him. We went to the local pizza place and got to know Pastor Ralph Liberty a little better. He was the friendliest, jolliest pastor I had ever met. My dad mentioned that I played piano and I was needing a place to practice. Pastor Ralph immediately offered the piano in their church, a little Assemblies of God congregation. I started walking to the church regularly to practice, and our family started attending the church. They had a new, black, baby grand. It was perched on their little platform stage, to the side, right by a window. I remember the carpet was a rich burgundy color and the light came in weakly through the small windows. I would turn on the little lamp on the piano and pull out my books. I had just started piano lessons at the local community college and my new teacher was determined to challenge me. The first day she sent me home from my first lesson with the Rachmaninoff Prelude in C# minor that was written on four staves in certain sections. I had never had a piece that difficult and I was determined to prove myself worthy. I remember sitting in the little sanctuary, pushing forward one measure at a time until I could finally play through the whole thing, very, very, very lento.
A couple months after that my parents found me a little spinet piano that just barely squeezed into the tiny house we were renting. My days of searching out pianos to practice on were finally over. I loved that little piano, and I wore it out. But, looking back, I am glad for the adventure I had in seeking the lending of a piano. I inhabited many sacred spaces that became my own for the short time I was there.
And so I say Thank you. Thank you dear churches. Thank you dear friends. Thank you dear strangers for lending me your piano. Those moments brought me great joy.