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January 30, 2021

Note to readers: During these difficult days for many people, Clare and I have been considering what we might do to help those in need. We have decided to continue our support for the charitable nonprofit organizations that are serving our community. Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one charity. This week, please volunteer or donate, as you are able, to The Bethlehem Center, which is dedicated to strengthening families, 397 Highland Avenue, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29306, (864) 582-7158.

When I was a boy, my mother decided that I should take piano lessons. My teacher was Mrs. Ruff. She lived in the big house across highway 56 from Cooperative School. I was a student in that school. Mr. E. P. Todd was my principal. Now that school has moved to Old Canaan Road and is named for Mr. Todd.

Mrs. Ruff’s home was the historic Foster’s Tavern.  Anthony Foster began construction of the building in 1801. The house took seven years to complete. The old home is made of hand-thrown bricks. It features chimneys at each end of a gable roof and beautiful hand-carved woodwork, including bowed mantels and stair scrollwork, windowpanes of blown glass, soapstone hearths, and cattle-hair plaster. It is the oldest brick home in Spartanburg, South Carolina. The portico with its semicircular fanlight above the door was added in 1845 and the porches about 1915.

Foster’s Tavern was a regular stop for John C. Calhoun, Vice President (1825 -1832)  and United States Senator (1832-1850).  Located along a well-traveled stagecoach route between Columbia and Fort Hill, South Carolina, Calhoun stayed so frequently that he had his own bedroom on the second floor. Bishop Francis Asbury, founder of the Methodist Church in South Carolina, recorded in his diary in 1810 that he also found lodging here.

The imposing home held more fascination for me than Mrs. Ruff’s upright studio piano. Mrs. Ruff was obsessed with scales. Week after week, I struggled to hammer out the boring notes of scales. I did learn to play “Happy Birthday” and “Home on the Range,” but that was pretty much on my own.

After only a few weeks, I was confronted with a decision. I attended my weekly lesson with a jammed thumb and finger on my right hand. Mrs. Ruff examined my black and blue hand and asked, “What did you do?”

“I snagged a line drive with my bare hand,” I explained.

“You did what?”

“I caught a baseball with my right hand.”

She looked at me as if I were speaking a foreign language. “Kirk, you cannot play baseball and the piano.”

“How about football and basketball?”

“If you are going to play the piano, you need to protect your hands.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I said.

That was my last piano lesson.

As I recall, each of our children took piano lessons. Sooner or later, they all played “Arabesque,” a tune that became so monotonous that I called it the recital piece from hell.

Betsy took lessons longer than any of our sons, and she practiced.  She still sits down at the keys to unwind after a stressful day, and she plays for her family.

Now, Clare and I have grandchildren who are playing the piano. We’ll see how that works out.

On the radio last week, I heard a familiar song. As often happens, when I get a tune in my head, it lingers throughout the day.  This piece was written and recorded by Billy Joel. The song, “Piano Man,” brought to mind a story I remembered from sixteen years earlier.

On April 7, 2005, the police picked up an unidentified man as he wandered the streets of 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.

He was presented a pen and paper by the hospital staff, hoping 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 Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s classical music 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 to the troubled man came from 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, 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 struck 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. As a wedding gift, he gave his bride, Juliane, 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 over-stringing technique, 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 to the instruments.

The company realized the mutual benefits of sponsoring artists. From the early days, Steinway has encouraged musicians 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.  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 house lights 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.”

I stopped playing the piano. I occasionally sit down on the bench next to a grandchild and play the bass part of “Heart and Soul.” That is a real joy.

Foster’s Tavern is now the residence of good friends. Just as when I was a boy, there are persistent rumors of ghostly sounds in the old house, albeit those of friendly spooks.

I wonder if those faint echoes may be the distant notes of an old piano where a young kid struggles to play scales. I didn’t stick with the piano, and it didn’t help my athletic endeavors one bit.

The message of the master is one of encouragement and hope, especially for these COVID times.

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

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor.

He can be reached at

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