Wherever I Go, I'm Shanghaied By a Piano

When I was 5, a player piano moved into our house and quickly became my favorite toy. I'd vigorously pump the pedals and spread my hands out over the keys, pretending it was my own fingers - not those meticulously punched rolls of paper - that were producing the sumptuous versions of "Valencia," "Humoresque," and "My Blue Heaven" that rang through our house ad infinitum.

Not nearly as impressive was the version of "America" that I taught myself in those first few months. My index fingers, played together with one white key in between, produced a clear melody and a bit of tagalong harmony, so I entered a talent show at our neighborhood movie theater. Whether it was because of my tender age or budding talent, I won first prize: a free ticket to next Saturday's double feature.

From that point on, I was stage-struck. I would play anytime, anywhere, with or without an invitation. Certainly, no one ever had to plead with me to play. By the time I was in fourth grade, I could do a passable version of just about any popular song with both hands all over the keyboard. I played at Camp Fire Girls meetings in junior high. When my fellow Awatonees tired of my entertainment, they'd turn out the lights, hoping to end the performance. But by now, my fingers were so accustomed to the keyboard they knew right where to go, even in the dark.

In high school, I often dropped by Ray Miller's Music Store to "break in" the pianos with Mr. Miller's blessing. I played for women's clubs, church groups, and nursing homes. And more than once I've taken over at a piano bar when the paid musician took a break.

I just have this urge to breathe life into a silent piano, wherever I find it.

Meanwhile, my sister Vel plodded along with sheet music. Dutifully, she'd struggle to bring those printed scores into harmonious accord. But I scoffed at those bland arrangements. Give me big-band sound, an entire orchestra. At least, that's what I tried to build into my play-by-ear versions, drums and all. I was continuously at work honing new techniques, "pounding the piano" (in Vel's words) without letup.

My younger sister, Marilyn, followed in my footsteps. Under duress, we can both read music; but play-by-ear is our forte. In our grandmother years, we often operate as a team. When we visit the nursing home where Mom lives, Marilyn works the crowd, picking up requests from the residents, while I play the piano. No sheet music to search for. No stapled song sheets to thumb through looking for No. 37. No delays or interruptions, no tickets or travel arrangements. Just spontaneous sparkle!

On a tour of China this fall, Marilyn and I gave each other a sturdy nudge when we entered the vast waiting room of the Shanghai railway station. In the center of that huge chamber was a circular platform, and on the platform was - yes! - a sleek, grand piano. Fanning out in all directions were rows of benches occupied by tourists: Chinese, French, German, American, Danish.

Marilyn and I immediately conspired to bring that piano to life. With 45 minutes to spare and our tour guide's OK, I sat down to play. Although I would have liked to have appeared appropriately modest, I couldn't escape the fact that I was about to perform for my largest captive audience ever! Marilyn opened the piano lid wide, and I launched into "I Could Have Danced All Night" from "My Fair Lady." The dreariness of train-waiting dissolved into song as a chorus of international music lovers joined in, some singing lustily in their native tongues: "I only know ... when he ... began to dance ... with me...."

OUR musical journey carried us through hits from "The Sound of Music," "South Pacific," and "Fiddler on the Roof." We did "On a Slow Boat to China" for our hosts, "Edelweiss" for the German tour groups, and "The Last Time I Saw Paris" for the French.

Danish tourists formed an impromptu chorus line for "Wonderful, Wonderful Copenhagen." Several rows over, a couple did the jitterbug, and next to the huge schedule board on the mezzanine, two station workers danced disco.

Working the crowd as usual, Marilyn ferreted out a Chinese doctor who was soon standing next to me at the piano. Coat folded over one arm, luggage resting at his feet, he offered to sing a solo, an Italian song. We agreed on a key, and I played a flourishing intro. Then our sing-along hit a cultural high. For this son of China filled the station right up to its rafters with his beautiful voice and "O Sole Mio."

There was thunderous applause, but no time for an encore. Our soloist took a quick bow, then rushed off to catch his train. When it was time for our group to move on, we closed the piano somewhat reluctantly, replacing its silky cover. Outwardly, the station resumed its sober ambience. Yet, there was unmistakably a quickened pulse among its clientele.

And who knows? There may be many songs still warming their hearts. Ready to burst forth at the slightest invitation. Just waiting for the next dance!

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