Thursday, February 29 2024 - 12:46 AM
finger on the piano
Photo by Dreamstime

Piano Man

During the time my father and I rented a townhouse together, I was playing in a band called “Restoration” with Harley Wong, Perry Melynchencko, and Arnold Dobrovsky. Our group was asked to play a concert at the CNIB, the Winnipeg branch of the Canadian Institute for the Blind. My father tagged along as I loaded a guitar into the hatchback of my blue Chevette.

We all arrived early to set up. The concert was to be held in a gym-sized auditorium at the CNIB building. It was the kind of vintage educational facility that echoed the heritage of the city—classic old Winnipeg. Well maintained, but well aged, a pleasant live-in atmosphere: blonde hardwood floors, a raised platform, the stage curtains pulled back, wood paneling accented by the chips and dents that testified to generations of use. On stage off to the right stood a lone piano, set back near the curtain. The small auditorium demanded retro respect. The wood tones projected a warm atmosphere enhanced by the late afternoon sunlight dancing through the windows on the hardwood floor. Rows of empty wooden chairs waited in silence for the soon-to-arrive audience.

The band members scurried about interrupting the solitude and hoping to get a soundcheck done before people started trickling in. There is a special joy in playing in a band and setting up the microphone stands, speakers, chords, and various sound equipment. It always feels like you are doing something important, even if you don’t know exactly what you are doing. Harry, our trusted sound tech, did know, and I helped him secure the long chords with blue gaffer tape from the speakers leading back to his mixing board onto the hardwood floor. There were guitars to tune and last-minute alterations on the set list.

We were a tight-knit little band that rehearsed every Friday at the Henderson Highway Church, and we’d learned nearly 50 songs—including original material. Sunny O’Reggio, a talented young lady from the West Indies with an amazing voice and range, often sang at our programs with Restoration backing her. So did Ruth Burrows, who always reminded me of Mother Maybelle Carter, with her solo guitar and inspirational songs—her presence engaging and dignified. We were all very into playing our music.

One night, Sunny and I went to see Kris Kristofferson, the master singer/songwriter in concert with his band at the old Winnipeg Arena. Kristofferson was probably in his early forties and at the top of his game. His songs painted intriguing images and characters so powerful that he could have just spoken the words alone. Partway through the concert, a girl holding a long-stemmed red rose approached the foot of the stage. In mid-song, Kristofferson bent down, thanked her, and received the rose in one motion. It was such a classy, elegant moment and memory.

A Moment of Magic

Yet, that autumn day, as we were setting up for our concert in the small CNIB auditorium, something became even more poignant to me. It has always been one of my most unforgettable and endearing memories of my father. It occurred during the flurry of activity as we were setting up for the CNIB program.

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed my father had wandered over to the lone piano near the stage curtain. Almost in a Chaplinesque matter, he had approached it and began letting his fingers explore the keyboard. I could discern the notes, yet, I never realized my father could play the piano. That image continues to recycle in my mind.

He lingered at the piano looking at the ivory keys, lost in the moment like a traveler confronted by an old friend or a road not taken. He looked vulnerable, solitary, so likable. He played a few notes and then quietly turned to sit among the rows of vacant chairs.

I wondered what was going through his mind. He’d once mentioned to us that as a child he had taken some piano lessons. But we never had a piano at home and had never heard him play on any occasion. It was something set aside or lost like his trunk of childhood memories and photos callously sold in his absence by an impatient landlord decades earlier in Toronto.

Yet, even catching that glimpse of Dad tickling the ivories while searching for a melody or scale from the past, I could sense his bemused joy. A private moment akin to unexpectedly encountering someone long forgotten.

What If?

I like to think if there had been a piano in the house or a keyboard around that Dad would have reconnected with the muse. He was full of rhythm; it would have made a difference. I think back and realize my parents never really had extra money but they paid for six years of music lessons for my sister and me, along with two guitars and an accordion.

There will always be deadlines, obligations, and dreams to chase. Too often we can get so focused on our own goals and future that we neglect to truly live in the present. We can miss those gems of life just off to the side and the reality of living in the moment.

When you are young, it’s easy to get wrapped up in your own activities and career path and forget how your parents sacrificed to give you opportunities. It may be understandable, but looking back, I realized I could be more self-absorbed than I would like to think. Why else did I lose the importance of that brief beautiful moment? It seemed so poignant at the time. There was really no reason I couldn’t have stopped by a music store or a pawn shop later that week and picked up a used portable keyboard to surprise my father.

I think he would have found the melody he had been searching for on that old stage piano.

If you enjoyed this, you may also like My Music Journey.

—A chapter from Stories My Father Told Me, an in-progress book of essays by Ed Guthero who writes from the Pacific Northwest.

 

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About Ed Guthero

Ed Guthero

writes from the Pacific Northwest.

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