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First Person: The piano, rediscovered

  • Kathleen Kelly at her home in Northampton Monday, Oct. 14.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Kathleen Kelly at her home in Northampton Monday, Oct. 14.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

Just to be perfectly clear, you don’t have to have white hair to be part of Piano Connection. As long as you’re an adult who plays the piano, there are no requirements for joining this group. Several members are well below its median age, which I estimate to be 70, my own age. Once a month we get together at the Northampton Community Music Center, home to two baby grands, to play from a repertoire that accommodates varying skill levels, all vaguely intermediate. We practice, we’re self-conscious, we have fun, we make mistakes. And we do our best to leave the critic at home.

Growing up in Medford, I took piano lessons for years with the good (and not-so-good) Sisters of St. Joseph’s, adhering to a rigorous schedule of daily practice and transcribing scales, chords and arpeggios weekly in every key imaginable (although for what purpose I had no idea). Sundays, when the children’s choir sang at Mass, I accompanied them on the organ. Once, when a newly ordained priest celebrated his first Mass, I played the recessional on the big pipe organ with every single stop wide open, creating echoes and reverberations I found thrilling.

The thrill, squashed by adolescent self-consciousness and the imperative to look cool, was short-lived. Piano practice ground to a halt, replaced by other priorities as I grew up, moved through high school, worked my way through a commuter college, and married.

When I married, my mother’s little spinet came with me, but it languished, except for the few pieces I played for my children to dance to when they were small, renaming Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in C-sharp minor,” for example, “The Monster Song.” Briefly, I flirted with improvisation, but in 1973, when “The Sting” made its debut on the big screen, I fell in love. Not with Robert Redford and Paul Newman, darling though they were, but with the racy, intoxicating, melancholy, joyful music of ragtime — “Easy Winners” and “The Maple Leaf Rag” my favorites. The renaissance of ragtime rekindled and expanded my pleasure in being at the keyboard.

Raising a family and establishing myself in a career, however, soon claimed all the time and energy I had; finding time for creativity wasn’t a priority. Still, keyboards had a way of showing up in strange places, begging me to play them. As a medical social worker, I worked in people’s homes and sometimes played hymns for people with dementia — “What Wondrous Love,” “The Water is Wide,” “Amazing Grace.” Sometimes, classical pieces — Robert Schumann’s “Traumerei.” Once, a luscious tango.

But at home, in my private life, playing the piano became a rare occurrence.

Music has come to occupy a different place in our culture than it did when people entertained by making music at home with family and friends. Now it is professionalized, mechanized, digitized, pumped through earphones. Pianos, once centerpieces in middle class homes, are disappearing, replaced, if at all, by digital keyboards like the one my granddaughter plays. Last year, The New York Times reported that with this generation’s passing, the last note we are likely to hear from a piano is the sound it makes when it lands with a thud in the dump. I’ve seen it happen — it was the fate of my own sister’s piano.

In addition to the precious gift of time, retirement brought with it the opportunity to reflect on many things, including my own creative energy (which I possess in abundance) and the ways I might explore and invest it. I withdrew several thousand dollars from my IRA to purchase a new (well, 20 years old) Yamaha upright. My financial planner wasn’t crazy about the idea of diverting money for a purchase that was — well, he might not actually have used the word “frivolous,” but that’s probably what he was thinking. I did it anyway.

Then I picked up a brochure for the Community Music Center and read about Piano Connection, brainchild of Meg Kelsey-Wright of Northampton. The get-togethers I attend these days include anywhere from eight to 12 pianists. My goal is to play every day and challenge myself with new or unfamiliar music. This is good for my aging brain, less stressful than learning a new computer program, and more fun than crossword puzzles.

After a year of playing more regularly, and feeling more confident and less self-conscious, I set out last summer with my friend Ilene for Hanover, N.H., home to The Hands On Piano project. Pianos that were headed for the dump had been donated to a local art center, where artists took them on as creative projects and technicians tuned them. They were then relocated outdoors all over town, where they remained throughout July, covered in plastic by volunteers when the weather was bad, played by anyone so inclined.

Cheered on by Ilene, who insists she is tone deaf (although she sang a nice rendition of Billy Holliday’s “God Bless the Child” when I played it), I tried out several pianos, playing a few of Mendelssohn’s “Songs without Words” and a rousing ragtime number by Joseph Lamb called “Bohemia.” Passers-by either stopped to listen and applaud, or kept walking, but smiled. Drivers waved and tooted their horns. I hadn’t had that much fun in years.

Kathleen M. Kelley lives in Florence and facilitates a writing group for women. She can be reached at http://kathleenmkelley.wordpress.com.

First Person welcomes submissions from readers. Email essays of no more than 800 words to Suzanne Wilson at swilson@gazettenet.com.

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