The Day the Music Died

Photo of the inside of my pianoStrange, it is, how we become attached to things. We assign personalities to lifeless objects. I don’t have to explain, you know you do it too.

Many years ago I rescued a piano. It’s owners had sold their home and were moving into a smaller condominium – no room for an old upright piano in their new abode. The people who bought the house didn’t want the piano either, but there was a problem. Years ago, the basement had been finished with new door casings and a tight turn at the bottom of the stairs. It was impossible to remove the piano from the house without some degree of demolition. Friends of mine, piano movers, were called in to perform an extraction – which meant obliterating the antique instrument with a sledge hammer.

By chance, I bumped into them on their way. It didn’t seem right, so I suggested that if there was any way to move the piano without destroying it, I would happily give it a new home. They went to the house and came up with a plan which involved surgically removing a very wide basement window, lying the piano on its back, hoisting it up to eye level, and sliding it out through the opening into the driveway. With the understanding that I would pay to have the window repaired, the homeowner obliged. Hence my home would become this old piano’s forever home.

That was 2003. In the last fourteen years we have moved … twice. We’ve grunted and moaned as we loaded the piano in and out of two rented moving trucks. We’ve panted and heaved as we pushed it up flights of stairs. We’ve grimaced and winced as it barreled unstoppably down flights of stairs. We heard that piano make sounds few pianos have ever made – and yet, here it is. All eighty-eight keys are perfectly out of tune by exactly a semi-tone, which is ideal because I am also exactly one semi-tone out of tune.

I grew up with a piano in our home. My sisters took lessons. Family friends would drop by and rattle off a few tunes now and then. It was very strange to me, as a child, to visit a house that didn’t have a piano. One of my fondest memories from my teens is having my high school sweetheart sit beside me on the piano bench while I tried my best to sound like Phil Collins and Chris DeBurgh. Somehow she looked past my complete lack of shame and married me anyway.

I went on to study music in university, to become a jazz pianist. Although I didn’t fully understand what was happening to me at the time, the early symptoms of anxiety-depression disorder were beginning to change who I would ultimately become. Eventually, and this is still difficult to admit – even to myself – the anxiety took away my ability to play the piano for other people. The fear of making a mistake was so crippling that I abandoned the music program and completed my degree with a major in English Literature. As people with anxiety often do, I had developed the dangerous habit of “mind reading” – imagining that other people are disappointed in you, or are thinking less than flattering thoughts about you. Even now, with my rescue piano in our living room, the girl I once wooed with my music has only the radio to listen to. My hands and voice almost always fail me if I think anyone is within earshot.

As crazy as it sounds though, I often play when the house is empty – secretly hoping that maybe she’s just outside, listening. I imagine her quietly coming in and catching me off guard while I play. She would say, “No, don’t stop”, and sit next to me on the bench again while I unabashedly murder a Peter Gabriel song.

I hoped, fourteen years ago when I rescued the piano from that basement, that it would help to heal me; that it would help me repair whatever had broken inside my crazy head all those years ago. I hoped that I could use that piano and fix myself, so I could sing for my kids and play carols at Christmas. The piano was to be my partner in recovery; the embodiment of hope that maybe someday I might feel normal again. But … well … here we quietly are.

It should be easy to give away a piano. It should be as simple as shouting, “Hey, do you want a free piano?” It’s not. Piano lessons have fallen out of fashion and nobody wants a half-ton antique warping their floors. The old piano remains unplayed, taking up space and impeding the installation of our own new living room floor, so we’ve decided to dismantle it. We’ll salvage what we can. I intend to re-purpose the antique wood for a book shelf. The hammer assembly and key’s will no doubt collect years of dust on the work bench in our basement until the day when somebody else has to clean the clutter out of my old house.

I wish the old soul could tell me all she has seen, heard, and felt in her hundred and five years; all the songs of celebration and sorrow; all the hands – young and old – that have caressed her keys. I can’t help but feel that I’ve failed her somehow, that I wasn’t strong enough to keep up my end of the bargain, or maybe that I’m just a quitter and I didn’t try hard enough. Either way, I’ll have to explain the situation to my old piano, and we’ll both have to accept that in a few days … the music dies.