I can’t remember a time in my life when I haven’t had a piano as one of my best friends. I was born into a household that had a big old upright piano living in it. Big Red. I remember trying to read its name scrolled in Old English typeface – Bush & Gerts, Chicago – but Big Red is a better name. My mom taught me a couple little melodies to play on some of the white keys near the middle of the keyboard – “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and something about “Birdies in Treetops” so that I could do more than just pound on the keys. When my big sister Nancy (11 years older than me) started to give actual piano lessons to my brother Danny (2 years older than me), I demanded my rights to the same advantage. He was 6, I was 4 when we started. Danny gave up on developing a friendship with Big Red within a year or two. Once he learned “Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater,” all on the black keys, he thought he knew enough to quit lessons. I kept on until I graduated from high school, although I had to move on to different teachers when Nancy moved away to college.
Throughout my school years, as soon as I got home from school, I’d check the mail lying on the dining room table where my dad had left it (my mom was at work in Madison), run upstairs to change my clothes, and then go straight to the piano to practice. I’d play each song of my lesson 5 times, and then I’d play with Big Red just for fun. Sometimes we’d try to figure out new tunes that I mostly remembered in my head from when I’d heard them on the radio. Sometimes we learned new songs from “Singspiration Gospel Songbooks” that my mom picked up from religious bookstores whenever a new songbook was published.
That’s when Big Red and I really became close friends, spending time playing together after school. Big Red was able to figure out immediately whether I was having a good day or a bad day as soon as I sat down on the old piano stool. If I was feeling sad, Big Red knew just what songs to remind me to play to feel better.
Big Red and I drifted apart a little when I was about 10 and an electronic organ moved into our household and tried to distract me from my piano friend. I developed a close friendship with the organ, too, but never as close as my relationship with Big Red.
The next piano in my close circle of piano friends was Lonnie Lyon & Healy. I’d been living in Chicago with my new best friend Mim for about a year, but I knew that something was missing in my life. I needed a piano friend. The big music store in Chicago at the time was Lyon & Healy, and I heard from another friend that they didn’t just manufacture and sell pianos, they leased them for a mere $15 a month. One phone call and a week later, Lonnie Lyon & Healy moved into our apartment. She was a little spinet with a squeaky sustain pedal, but she quickly became a good friend. We settled into a routine of me getting ready for work about half an hour early, so we could spend some time playing together before I took the “L” downtown to my job.
After a couple years of playing together with Lonnie, she confided in me that she was getting tired and wanted to move back to the store for awhile. I said OK, and went looking for a new piano friend.
That’s when I met Sally Sohmer in the Lyon & Healy store at Woodfield Mall in suburban Chicago. She was a little bigger than Lonnie, but not as big as Big Red. The store called her a console. I thought of her as a short studio piano. I really liked the touch of her keys when I tried her out. I also tried out several of her cousins in the store, but it was an easy decision. I liked her the best, and she was going to come home with me. I knew we were destined to become really good friends. As Sally and I got to know each other better, we experimented with different kinds of music, especially the easier works of classical composers. We had so much fun with Beethoven’s “Rage Over a Lost Penny.” We also began to explore more creative arrangements of hymns, like I had begun to find with Big Red when I was in high school. We also built up a bigger than necessary library of Christmas music.
Sally Sohmer moved to Wisconsin with Mim and me in 1992 when me moved back to the farmhouse where I had grown up, and that’s where we had some of the most fun of our lives. We discovered golden oldies. My mom used to buy popular sheet music before she was married (in the late 1920s and early 1930s), and her collection was still in the store room upstairs at the farmhouse. Mim joined our playtimes for this. She sang some of the most hilarious lyrics we’ve ever heard. “Pink Elephants” became one of our favorites.
A couple years after we moved to Wisconsin, Mim invited Jim Forrest to join our circle of people and piano friends. Mim had met Jim as a patient at the clinic where she worked, and she learned that he was a piano tuner and technician. Jim became our piano tuner – both for Big Red who still lived in the farmhouse and for Sally Sohmer.
After a few years of seeing Jim at least twice a year, sometimes more often, when he happened to be in Cambridge to tune someone else’s piano and we met for lunch, we learned that Jim’s real passion was being a matchmaker between people and pianos. That came up one day just after he had tuned Sally Sohmer. He said, “Marian, I have just the piano for you. It would fit perfectly in this end of your living room. It’s a Baldwin baby grand. It’s a beautiful 5’ grand that I’m rebuilding in my workshop right now. I’m almost finished with it, and I’ll sell it to you for a really good price. You and this piano need to be together.”
I responded with, “I already have a really nice piano. Two of them, actually. Why would I want another piano?”
Jim replied, “Ah, but neither of them is a grand. Have you ever played a grand piano?”
“No, I haven’t. But I’m very happy with the pianos I have right now.”
“Why don’t you just come to my workshop in Madison and play the Baldwin, so you can hear and feel the difference between a grand and an upright.”
Mim joined the conversation at that point, and said, “Let’s just go and try it. It will be fun to try it out, and then we’ll know if there’s a big difference, or not.” A few days later we did. I couldn’t believe the difference in touch and sound, especially hearing the high notes just ring out. I may be fickle, but I fell in love with Betty Baldwin on the spot. I sold Sally Sohmer to my brother Danny (not for him to play, but for his daughter Emily to learn on), and Jim found a new home for Big Red at a Victorian style bed and breakfast in Stoughton, where she would fit right in. (At least we could still visit my two old friends.)
A few years later, matchmaker Jim told me that he had just the right piano for me. He was rebuilding a Steinway, the next size up from Betty Baldwin, about 5-1/2 feet. We repeated nearly the same conversation we’d had before, and I went to his workshop to try out the Steinway, just so I could hear and feel the difference between a Steinway and a Baldwin. I fell in love again, and sold my Baldwin to Danny who ended up with two pianos, with his greatest personal musical accomplishment still being “Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater” on the black keys.
Stella Steinway has been my best friend (except for Mim, and maybe a handful of other people) for ten years now, and I’m pretty sure our relationship will last for the rest of my lifetime. Then Stella will need to find another friend. I’m helping Jim match up pianos with other friends of mine – hopefully, no more for me. Stanley Steinway, Stella’s bigger brother, went to the Presbyterian Church in Cambridge. I still play with him about once a month, or so.
The only other piano I play with any regularity is Stephanie Steinert, the piano at my church, Messiah Lutheran Church in Madison. Stephanie Steinert is a cousin of Stella Steinway, and they’re almost identical. Stephanie’s designer had worked closely with the Steinway Company over the years, and the style and quality of Steinert pianos rivals that of Steinways.
So, why am I reminiscing about all my piano friends today? Last week Stella and I had so much fun playing together that I just laughed and laughed and laughed. Last weekend our church celebrated All Saints Day, and I wanted to pick out some fun but appropriate music for the Saturday evening service I was scheduled to play. Saturday night services are a little more casual than Sunday morning services, and I usually play the prelude, the opening hymn, and communion hymn on the organ, and I play the offertory, closing hymn, and postlude on the piano.
I worked with my digital piano, Claire Clavinova (pretending to be an organ), first to find an appropriate prelude to play on the organ. We came up with an energetic arrangement of For All the Saints and a fun variation of Shall We Gather at the River. The two pieces fit together nicely and timed out at 5 minutes 30 seconds, just about the right length.
So I was ready to move on to my friend Stella Steinway to play around with all the music we could think up related to All Saints Day for the offertory and postlude. I thought about old gospel songs like “When the Roll Is Called up Yonder” and “When We All Get to Heaven” but I didn’t have any fancy arrangements of either song. Then I turned to my James Koerts 3-ring binder of spirituals I’ve down-loaded from the Internet. Stella and I just played and played and laughed. We finally narrowed down our offertory and postlude choices to just a few, and played them for Mim and Carolyn (one of our 96-year-old residents) so that they could help us decide. Carolyn chose a very jazzy “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” for the offertory, and Mim chose an equally jazzy “When the Saints Go Marching In” for the postlude. By the time we finished making our selections, all the spirits in our household were having a great time. It’s amazing what music can do for the soul. And my friend Stella Steinway never lets me forget that.
Praise the Lord!
Praise God in His sanctuary;
Praise Him in His mighty firmament!
Praise Him for His mighty acts;
Praise Him according to His excellent greatness!
Praise Him with the sound of the trumpet;
Praise Him with the lute and harp!
Praise Him with the timbrel and dance;
Praise Him with stringed instruments and flutes!
Praise Him with loud cymbals;
Praise Him with clashing cymbals!
Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.
Praise the Lord!
[Psalm 150 – New King James Version]