I’ve been walking past the piano since I was, well, able to walk. After 14 hours in the car from Texas to Illinois, we would pull on to Fenwood Drive somewhere between 5 and 6am. The glowing porch light encouraged us to sneak through the front door, past the music maker, and down the hall to “our” bedroom and fall asleep until the smell of breakfast would wake us up midmorning. It is my aunt and uncle’s house. The half-way point to Pennsylvania, and- now- Michigan. It is where we stopped and stayed for countless ARMY moves in-between assignments, boat rides down the Mississippi, and parents-only motocross weekends at Duquesne raceway. Even now, it is as familiar as home.
The piano is a beast. Specifically, a 1929 Gulbransen-Dickenson player-piano of a beast. My brother and cousin and I would spend afternoons pumping the pedals to fill the lines with air and make Frosty the Snowman play. We imagined we were actually that good… that tempo matched keys matched precision, and we could play anything- as long as it was Frosty. Or we’d move the toggles another way and block off the top of the keys. Or skip the automatic magic altogether and just… play.
We were always allowed to play the piano.
My aunt never called it “playing on” the piano. She gave our little hearts grown-up sized credit. Whether we had the help of the Word Roll or we chose to go it alone, the piano was allowed to be used.
“Noise,” she told me once after a particularly rough concert by my brother, “is relative. Noise is just a combination of notes you don’t prefer. It’s music to someone, Kate.”
For this rule-follower, it was a revolutionary idea. I am classically trained; improv does not come naturally. Boundaries were there to stand upon and embrace. I still have trouble with jazz. I do.
Was is truly possible that the definition was so wide? That it was a rainbow of colors and options instead of the implied black and white simplicity of the keys? Could my brother and I both be right? At the same time?
I forgot about that piano until this weekend when my children discovered it for the first time.
Sit down, I said.
You can play.
Whatever you play, it will be music.
I learned that here.
Lord, help me remember it everywhere else.