Death of a Piano

As a parent, you usually know when you mess up, but sometimes fails happen when you least expect it. For instance, last night at bedtime, I was looking for some relaxing piano music to help lull my daughters (3 and 7) to sleep and ended up finding this video about an old piano left on the sidewalk, and the reactions of people who pass by it.

My daughters asked if they could watch it. It seemed harmless enough. I thought it would probably be uplifting somehow, like maybe some concert pianist would sit at it and get one last nocturne out of it.

As we watched, I explained to my girls the difference between a regular piano with a long, contoured body and an upright piano, and how they were introduced to make pianos available to people with smaller homes or apartments.

I’ve been trying to inspire one of them to play because I always regretted that I didn’t learn. I took lessons as a kid but was a typical boy, more interested in playing baseball in the street. How could I know how much knowing how to play a piano would benefit me for the rest of my life? I can play the guitar bit and I love to sing, but man how I would love to sit down and play a little Beethoven or Chopin.

Anyway, a few people stopped to tinker with the piano but the camera was too far away to hear what they were playing. By the time the video was over, my girls were riveted, wondering what the fate of the old piano would be. Then . . .

they tore it to pieces.

My girls both started crying. I turned off the video exactly as I would if I were trying to protect their innocent eyes from an act of violence. Struggling to calm them and undo the damage I had unwittingly done, I said, “Come on, girls. It’s just a piano. It’s a piece of furniture that makes noise.”

It didn’t work. They cried harder. Insulting the piano only made matters worse.

Then I switched directions and acknowledged their feelings, saying, “I wish that would have ended differently, too. I was hoping someone would come by and take the piano home with them. That was sad, huh?” They both calmed down a little and, with quivering voices, said, “Mm-hm.”

Their reaction may also have been partially caused by the fact that we have an upright piano in our house. It has sat in the corner for years like an old friend, waiting for someone to muster the interest and determination to learn to make it sing again. It’s old. Like a hundred years old. I imagine it sits there silently dreaming about its glory days in some house in the 1930’s when the family piano player (almost every family had one back then) played while the others sang and danced.

I also remembered my own childhood, when I anthropomorphized absolutely everything. I would crumple up a piece of paper and throw it in the trash only to retrieve it, straighten it out, and apologize to it. (Really.) Maybe I had watched H.R. Pufnstuf too much and thought everything was alive. Or maybe children are just naturally more sensitive to the various kinds of consciousness – however subtle and immeasurable they may be – that imbue all things that are made from something that was once alive. Or perhaps an object’s usefulness, particularly the joy it brings the user, gives it a kind of personality. Plenty of musicians talk to their instruments, give them names, etc. There’s even an old expression used in love, “How about you and me making beautiful music together?”

So, though I hate to see them cry, I’m glad my girls felt sorry for that old piano. They knew it wasn’t just a piece of furniture. They know it’s much, much more. I think somehow they know, like all would-be musicians curious about an instrument, that only it can help them unlock all those secrets and fears and overwhelming feelings stirring in their young souls.

My favorite singer/songwriter, David Wilcox, (the American one, not the Canadian one), once said he was attracted to the guitar as a teenager for just that reason – because he thought it knew something about him that he didn’t, and that he couldn’t discover without its help.

When my girls busted out crying, I felt like I had done something wrong, but in the larger picture, I think my wife and I are doing alright. More importantly, I think they’re going to be alright. If they didn’t care about the old piano getting demolished, I’d be much more worried.