A place for the piano

The humanities approach to music, often referred to as musicology, involves more than just listening to or producing sound. Behind the melody, there is a method. Behind the tune, a tale. And behind the instrument, almost always, a rich history. For years, I have viewed our family piano in the same way. To me, it is more than a piano. The upright, soft brown oak piece has served many purposes. Sometimes, but not often, it was merely furniture. Other times, especially on Christmas Eves, it was the celebrity at center stage. More recently, the piano has become a much-sought-after treasure.

When I was in kindergarten, my mom asked her mom if she could have the family piano. To make the trip from Birmingham to Meridian, Mississippi, would be quite a trek for the instrument, but my grandmother agreed. After all, my mom (and her brothers) had grown up tinkling away at the piano’s pearly keys, and she wanted two of her granddaughters, my sister and me, to be able to take lessons, as well.

I remember the day the U-Haul brought the piano to our house in Meridian. My dad remembers it better, because he backed that U-Haul right into the roof of our carport. (There is still a ding in the woodwork.) But after the drama of the mishap, the piano settled into a cozy corner of our living room, where it sat and never moved for the better part of 20 years.

I began taking lessons right away. From kindergarten until I graduated high school, I took them every week without fail. Though my sister eventually latched on to the violin, I held fast to my love for piano playing. At first, I liked catchy and easy tunes–later on in my life as a pianist, I decided Chopin was my favorite composer.

When I went off to college, I missed the piano. I would steal away to the University of Alabama’s music building to play from time to time, but without practice and direction, I eventually lost a bit of my “touch.” And lately, I have been wanting to get that “touch” back.

My husband and I bought our first house a few months ago. Instantly, I thought of the piano. Of course, since I played it more than anyone else and had for almost a lifetime, I felt a certain ownership over the instrument. Initial pleas to my mom to hand it over, however, were unsuccessful.

At first she, politely, refused. Later, she said she would “think about it.” Then, she said she was “still thinking about it.” All the while I itched and itched: I had to have the piano. I lamented to my uncle, who to my surprise said, “Now wait a minute, that’s my piano.” (I’d forgotten he once laid claim to it, too.)

After months of waiting, and probably selfishness on my part, my mom gave me her answer: yes. There were, of course, conditions. One, I would have to begin taking lessons again. Two, I would have to mop and vacuum her entire house. I agreed to both, and am now happy to say that the family piano sits in a cozy corner in my new living room. It has returned to Birmingham, its first home.

The feeling, I must admit, is bittersweet. When the U-Haul came and took it from my parents’ house a few weekends back, I was left looking at the empty corner in the living room where the piano once stood. I learned, quickly, that it wasn’t just the piano. It was the room where it sat, the corner where it lived, the walls that adsorbed so many songs, so many memories, that made it, and make it, the family piano. Now when I return to my childhood home, there will be no piano for me to play. On future Christmas Eves, there may not be as much music. And for my mom, she no longer has her mother’s piano sitting in her living room.

These feelings of guilt will, no doubt, cause me to take exceptional care of the piano. I will soon begin research on area piano teachers, and build up a sheet music collection. And while I ended up telling my mom she could have it back if she ever wanted it, in the end, I came away with more than the piano. I learned, a new and hard way, the humanities-type approach to music–that a song or instrument is also a feeling, a place, a past, and something irreplaceable and inspiring.

Written by: Katie C.