“Every time I sit and begin to play, the gift I’m given in return touches a deep place in me.”
It’s a five-foot baby grand piano built by the Mason & Risch Piano Company of Toronto. For 50 years or more it offered up its soul in service to the church—and bears the marks to prove it. The gleam is gone from its finish. Scratches and chips mar its complexion. Scars mark the places where amateur repairs have been made, one or two of the keys are sticky, and the bench is a little wobbly. But the ivory keys are flawless—except for one hairline crack on G5. And despite being plunked, pounded and everything in between for half a century, the action is still responsive and the tone is bright. A fussy ear may say it needs a tuning, but my ear is not that fussy.
We share a lot of history, this piano and I.
I was just a lad when it showed up in the sanctuary of Dublin Street Pentecostal Church in Peterborough, Ont. It took up residence on the east side of the altar area, opposite the Hammond B3 organ with its high-powered Leslie speaker. Together they provided musical accompaniment for thousands of Sunday services, hundreds of weddings (including ours), Christmas cantatas, concerts, funerals, Bible college baccalaureates, special evangelistic services and conferences.
Without a word of complaint, this faithful instrument acquiesced to any style of music asked of it. From Pachelbel’s “Canon in D” to Albert Brumley’s “I’ll Fly Away,” from Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” to Martin Nystrom’s “As the Deer,” it answered every call. All it asked in return was to be kept in tune.
When the Dublin St. congregation moved to the north end of the city and became Northview Pentecostal Church, the Mason and Risch went too. I was gone from the city when that happened, and my relationship with the church and the piano faded with the passing of time.
When we moved back to Peterborough in 1984 and I had occasion to visit Northview Church, I noticed that the baby grand was still there. Twenty-one years after that, it was played at my dad’s funeral, and five years later at my mom’s.
As in many of our churches, though, the transition from acoustic to electronic keyboards meant the baby grand was being played less and less. Finally it became, in essence, an unused and unwanted piece of furniture.
That’s when our relationship was rekindled.
I don’t remember why I was at Northview that day, but I do remember saying to the pastor, “If the church is ever thinking of getting rid of the baby grand, I’d be interested in it.” It was one of those spur of the moment, hope against hope remarks. The kind of thing you try to forget saying for fear of its never happening.
But it did happen. A year ago, my phone rang. The offer was made. Measurements were taken and movers were hired. Today, that Mason and Risch five-foot baby grand piano resides in the east end of my living room.
I sit at this piano most days, often in the evening after supper, or when I need a break from editing. When I get home from working at the restaurant and my body is aching, or when my mind or spirit feels weary, I sit and play. I am not a skilled pianist. I’ve retained just enough from my childhood lessons to be able to read a melody line with my right hand. I play almost exclusively by ear. I have my favourite keys and chord patterns, and I use them unapologetically. But I’m experiencing a new level of freedom and comfort with this particular instrument. I don’t feel judged when I hit a wrong note, or when my chord voicing is awkward, or when my tempo is off. The truth is, I play the piano like Willie Nelson plays the guitar—to my own beat. I hardly ever play a song the same way twice. I am a metronome’s worst nightmare. Messrs. Mason and Risch never complain.
Every time I sit and begin to play, the gift I’m given in return touches a deep place in me. I feel quieted. I sing more now than I have for a long time. And when my hands tire and I stand up to go, I feel like I’ve spent time with a treasured old friend.
I’ve wanted lots of things over the course of my life. The things I’ve wanted and actually gained have mostly been forsaken or forgotten. But when I think of the treasures in my life, I think of things like this piano; things I have not earned and could never afford to buy that find their way into my life by means beyond my means. I call them treasures because they enrich my life, not because they possess high monetary value. In fact, what I consider a treasure, you might consider yard sale material. When the movers brought this piano into our home, they told us that the company they worked for has a warehouse filled with abandoned pianos. It’s an image I’ve been unable to forget. An entire warehouse filled with silent, forgotten pianos awaiting an uncertain fate.
A needlepoint hangs in a bedroom of our home. My mom stitched it in her autumn years. It reads, “Contentment is not the fulfilment of what you want, but the realization of how much you already have.”
So for now I have this piano, a new old friend. I will enjoy it for as long as my fingers can move. Then, if Mason and Risch are still up for it, my hope is to hear at least one of my grandkids play it for their poppa.