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THE PIANO MAN

January 23, 2016

Last Tuesday, I attended the meeting of the Rotary Club of Spartanburg. Being a member of the group, I enjoy good friends, good food, and consistently good programs. Dave Zabriskie, a local banker who is also a Rotarian, usually plays a grand piano while the rest of us enjoy a delicious meal.  As I ate and talked with friends seated at the table with me, I noticed that Dave was playing a familiar tune. It was written and recorded by Billy Joel. The song, “Piano Man,” brought to mind a story I remembered from nearly ten years earlier.

On April 7, 2005, an unidentified man was picked up by police as he was wandering the streets in Kent, in England. Dressed in a suit and tie, he was soaking wet. He was unresponsive to their questions, remaining silent. The police took him to Medway Maritime Hospital.

There, he was presented a pen and paper by the hospital staff in the hope he would write his name. Instead, he drew a detailed sketch of a grand piano. When they took him to a piano, he played music of various types ranging from classical music by Tchaikovsky to pop tunes by The Beatles. He played for four hours.

He was admitted to the psychiatric unit and dubbed the Piano Man by the hospital staff.

The name given the troubled man came from the lyrics of the song by Billy Joel.

Sing us a song, you’re the piano man.

Sing us a song tonight.

Well, we’re all in the mood for a melody,

And you’ve got us feeling alright.

The name, the Piano Man, might also apply to Heinrich, born in February 1797, in the Black Forest area of Germany.  Most of the men in his family were woodcutters.  When the French invaded Germany, Heinrich’s father and older brothers went to war while his mother fled to the mountains with the younger children.  When the father and brothers returned after a cold winter, they found that the mother and younger children had died.  Only young Heinrich had survived.

Heinrich worked with his father and brothers as a woodcutter.  One day in the forest, they were caught in a violent thunderstorm.  The small shelter where they found refuge was stuck by lightning and destroyed by fire.  Heinrich’s father and brothers died.  At the age of fifteen, he was the lone survivor in his family.

Heinrich learned the art of making stringed musical instruments.  After becoming the organist of the village church, he developed an interest in making pianos. He gave his bride, Juliane, as a wedding gift, the first piano he made with his own hands.

When his fledgling piano business failed, he immigrated to America with his wife and seven children.  He and his sons found work in various piano factories in New York City and started their own business in 1853.  Ten years later, Heinrich Steinweg changed his name legally to Henry Steinway.

To this day, Steinway pianos are made almost entirely by hand.  Making a Steinway piano is a little like giving birth to a baby.  Each piano takes nine months to craft. No two are the same. More than 400 workers follow Henry Steinway’s meticulous piano-making technique, carefully assembling more than 12,000 parts.  Every key and each hammer are repeatedly checked and balanced. Eighteen layers of hard maple wood are laminated together to fashion the curved rim.

The Steinway Company holds numerous patents for piano design, including a one-piece, cast-iron piano plate and the technique of over-stringing, which refers to arranging the strings inside the case in a crisscrossed pattern, allowing for longer strings, greater tension, and therefore greater volume.  Before a Steinway piano is shipped, it is tuned nine times.

Henry Steinway, the great-grandson of the founder, says Steinway defines itself as the world’s finest piano maker and as a patron of the arts. Years ago, the company invited pianists to come in and try the pianos. Piano makers listened to the musicians’ comments and made improvements in the instruments. The company realized the mutual benefits of sponsoring artists. From the early days, Steinway has encouraged artists to use the Steinway piano, and thereby developed cultural institutions like the New York Philharmonic.

The Steinway Company has brought some of the world’s great pianists to America.  Vladimir Horowitz, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Arthur Rubinstein, and Jan Paderewski are among the most famous.  Today, Steinway artists include Van Cliburn and Billy Joel.    The Steinway Company wants their pianos to be played.  Any visitor to Steinway Hall in New York City may sit down to play.

Wishing to encourage her young son’s interest in the piano, a mother took her boy to a Paderewski concert at Steinway Hall.  After they were seated, the mother spotted a friend in the audience and walked down the aisle to greet her. Seizing the opportunity to explore the concert hall, the young boy left his seat and made his way through a stage door.

The houselights dimmed. The concert was about to begin. The mother returned to her seat and discovered that her child was missing. The stage curtains parted. Spotlights focused on the impressive Steinway Grand Piano.

Horrified, the mother saw her son sitting at the keyboard, innocently picking out “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.”

At that moment, Paderewski made his sweeping entrance. Quickly moving to the piano, he whispered in the boy’s ear, “Don’t quit. Keep playing.”

Then leaning over, the master pianist reached down with his left hand and began filling in a bass part to the boy’s simple tune. Soon his right arm reached around to the other side of the child as he added a running treble counterpoint.  Together, the old master and the young boy transformed an awkward situation into a creative experience. The audience was mesmerized.

It is an important message of hope, a word of encouragement for every person in a difficult circumstance.

“Don’t quit. Keep at it. You are not alone.”

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