• James Stranahan

Piano: The Heart and Soul of Who I Am

Do you remember the first time you fell in love? I do: I was only 6 years old, and it was with a black upright piano that my mom brought home one Saturday morning. I can still remember the truck pulling up and watching the workmen unload a big dolley carrying “something” that was covered with a huge blanket. As they wheeled it up the sidewalk, I held the door back as far as it would go so that they could bring whatever it was inside without scratching it. The anticipation was just killing me, but Mom refused to spoil the surprise.

Once the workmen were in our living room, they pulled the blanket off the “something” and revealed my family’s new piano. Whoah. I was dying to try it out but had to wait as the workmen maneuvered it into its new spot near the bookcase. Pianos, I have come to believe, are a lot like pets in that a house is never the same again when you bring one home. In place of this blank space that had only ever been occupied when there was a dust bunny was now a gorgeous piano that would become one of the best friends I have ever had.

Once the workmen were gone, I sat down immediately to see this new treasure. The fallboard, or the piano’s case, was still down, so I cautiously pushed it up, revealing white and black keys that had never been used by anyone else. Have you ever touched a brand-new piano? The keys are sleek and shiny, and yes, there are 88 of them - I took a moment to count all of them. I ran my hands over them, marveling at how they felt under my small hands. How could I use them to make music?

I remembered something I had seen a pianist do one time: a glissando, which is basically when you start at the top of the keyboard and use your thumb to race down the keys, hopefully playing each one without destroying your hand in the process. I tried it out, envisioning myself to be some grand performer, and I got about halfway down the keyboard before realizing that playing a glissando could actually hurt. Maybe some other time.

Below my feet were three pedals whose names I couldn’t begin to imagine, but if I strained, I could just reach them. I played a couple of notes on the piano while pressing the far right pedal down, and I could hear how the sounds blurred together.

This was power. I had in front of me a marvelous instrument, and I was ready to play it. No guts, no glory. I picked out three black keys and 7 white keys, raised my hands dramatically into the air, paused for effect, then brought my hands down onto the keys with the full force of a young boy who had no idea what he was doing.

I missed every key I had intended to play, and the sound was deafening. I didn’t care. I raised my hands again, and I felt my mom tap me on my shoulder.

“Hey Ben, let’s talk about piano lessons,” she suggested, seeing where this was all going. Moms can be the smartest people in the world sometimes.

Over the years to come, I would go to piano lessons and learn how to play the music that was in my heart and soul. Classical and Blues, mostly, though I like other types, too. Each time I sit down to play, my spirit lifts, and I can feel all the pressures of life melt away. Today, I am blessed to have a Baldwin Grand, and I spend hours on it, improvising and playing whatever I am in the mood for.

No matter how old I become, I don’t believe I will ever tire of playing such a dramatic instrument, one that demands so much of me and takes my complete concentration and dedication. I am just thankful that I have improved since my early days. Thanks, Mom, for the lessons. And, yes, I can now play a glissando without killing my thumb.

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