I’ve been trying to remember how old I was when I got my first keyboard for Christmas. Between 7-9 I guess. It was the 21 key Casio PT100. And it was awesome. I also got 4 how-to books that taught you how to play. The music in the books had the notes on the staff and there were stickers so you could mark the keys on your keyboard. And that, my friends, is how I learned to play the piano. I commited to memory the notes of the treble clef, and eventually the stickers all rubbed off the keys and it all stuck in my brain. I also had this pretty great ability to figure out how to play a song just by listening, so when I had worn my way through those four beginner books, I just sortof figured out the songs I wanted to play. I was only about 9 after all, so my selections weren’t really that complicated, but I could really nail Somewhere Over the Rainbow, and mash out all the favourite hymns I knew from church.
Before the PT100, there was the old decrepit organ in the basement. You had to hit the switch a few times to get it to turn on, sometimes augmenting the switch flip with a hard shake of the whole instrument. It took a few minutes for it warm up, and it always had a loud and distinct hum that you would have to ignore if you wanted to be in the same room for any length of time. I mostly managed to tune it out while playing. I loved to goof around on it, with it’s push button chords and two dusty keyboards. I think my sisters may have had to practise on it for their piano lessons, and needless to say, they gave up, as would most respectable humans because the sound was actually atrocious.
When I was around 11, the church I attended got new hymn books, and were “selling” the old ones for a $4 donation, and unfortunately the Sunday this was all going down, I was sick with the chickenpox, so I missed out on the hymn book sale. Devastated, I was, since I wanted to at least see if I was playing the right notes to the hymns, and learn others that I just couldn’t figure out on my own. A lady at my church, Joanne, knew that I really wanted one, so that Sunday, she dropped it by. I get all misty-eyed just thinking about it. To her, it was likely a very small gesture, but it was significantly influential to me.
I played the shit out of “Great Hymns of Faith”, making up the chords based on the way things sounded in church. I didn’t know how to read the bass clef–my instructional books failed to cover that. I also refused to play anything with more than 2 flats or 3 sharps, so instead I would transpose the music in my head. How I learned about key signatures is beyond me–I just kinda knew.
I would alternate playing through that hymn book on the organ and on my little PT100, pretending to be Mrs. Speer (piano) or Mrs. Toews (organ)–the ladies who accompanied the congregation in their singing. My dream was to one day become the church pianist. But clearly I couldn’t do it without piano lessons or a real piano.
I’m not sure why my parents never indulged my desire for lessons–most parents force that shit on their kids, but I guess they just didn’t take it seriously. Or maybe they just thought I didn’t need them. So instead, later that year for Christmas, I got upgraded to the Casio MT 520.
Christmas Day–Me, My Dad and my MT 520
This model had more keys, though they were much smaller and it had a pretty sweet drum pad. You could really rock out, I guess, but I just wanted to play church hymns like a weirdo. And hymns I played until I started busting the keys. I first lost the F sharp just below middle C, and next to go was the B flat in the same direction. The keys were broken, but you could still hit them so they would press the little button underneath to make the sound. Until that button came off and the notes stopped working entirely. I think at the end I had about 7 or 8 broken keys on that thing, but I just wouldn’t give up.
Whenever I was in a place that had a piano, I would play it. People’s houses, the school music room, church, AWANA, wherever. And if I couldn’t play it for whatever reason, my stomach would almost hurt because I wanted to so bad. I wished all the time that my parents would just buy me a frigging piano. It couldn’t be that hard, right? So many birthdays I would secretly hope for the best birthday surprise of all, where I would come home and find a piano delivery truck in our driveway. Unfortunately, no such surprise ever materialized.
About halfway through grade 9, at 14 years old, I finally got the chance to take lessons. They were offered at my school, and I could duck out of geography once a week for a 30 minute, $9 lesson with Mrs. Giesbrecht. I told her of my dreams to become a church pianist, and she wanted to help me with that, but she knew I needed to learn some proper technique first–which I absolutely hated. She pointed out to me that I didn’t play with my thumbs. She thought it was the strangest thing she’d seen, until I explained that I couldn’t really use my thumbs to play properly on the MT-520. The keys were just too small for my hand span. Understanding my technique was hampered by the tiny keys, she mostly overlooked my awkward fingering and encouraged me to continue. She was a really nice lady.
The summer after grade 9, my dad died. And when Mrs. Giesbrecht called to see if I would be continuing lessons in the fall and to inform us of a price increase, I told her I wasn’t sure that we would still be able to afford it, with my dad no longer around. She offered to keep the lessons at the original price and I was able to continue to take lessons for the next 2 years or so.
When someone dies there’s a ton of shit that happens, unexpected costs arise and life gets a bit crazy. Not only does it suck that you’ve just lost your loved one, but you basically get screwed in a lot of different ways when you’re trying to wade your way through the grief. Months after my dad died, his friends held a memorial golf tournament in his honour. The proceeds from that tournament were donated to our family. I’m not sure why my mom agreed to use a portion to buy me a piano, but she did, and I was super jazzed. Pretty much the only bright spot after months of shitty despair.
We scoured the newspapers, and piano stores as there wasn’t the internet in those days. We came across an old painted upright that was for sale for $400. It didn’t have a bench and it was painted, but the price was right, so we went to check it out. It was a nice piano, the keys were quite yellow, but the paint job wasn’t bad and the sound was really nice. It was the one. The thing I had wanted for my entire life. My very own piano.
Black and White and Grey All Over
The day the piano was delivered was probably one of the most exciting days of my life. I played it from when I got home until well past my bedtime. I remember sitting in the dark living room playing because the sun had set and I didn’t want to get up to turn the lights on. It looked nice in our living room, and the yellow keys never bothered me. My very thoughtful and talented friend, Amber, managed to make me a matching bench in her grade 11 shop class. I don’t think I ever really thanked her for that–it really is a beautiful piece, and especially so, since she was only like 16.
90’s half shirt and Impy, and my piano
Me and My piano, Prom 1996
My niece Chrissy being coy
My Kindred, Marty, and Amber, maker of the bench in the middle
Not long after I got the piano, I did my Grade 8 Piano exam, and passed with flying colours. I went on to be a church pianist and eventually a worship director. I played at almost every service (sometimes 3 a week–it was a fundamental baptist church after all!) for probably 4 years or more. It was a dream come true–the lessons, playing in church, and the piano.
When my mom sold the house several years later, I moved into a one bedroom apartment with no room for a piano, and such has been the case since then. There’s never room for the piano. My Auntie housed my piano at her place for years hoping that one day I might be able to find room for it, until she moved, and could look after it no longer.
My super friend, Rock N Roll Jen offered to take it for me and it stayed with her up until now. I could visit it when I wanted, and it being at Jen’s made for some loud and drunken piano sessions. The time has come that Jen can no longer keep it for me, and I can’t move it here. I’ve come to realize that I will never, while living here in Toronto, be able to host a piano of it’s size. We might be able to fit it into our home now, but we’d never be able to get it up the two flights of stairs. We couldn’t even fit a regular couch in, so I doubt a hundred year old upright would fit.
So it’s time to let it go. I’ll try to give it away–we haven’t had luck so far, but maybe soon someone will take it. And if not, I’ve got a back up plan–my friend Mike and his company Just Junk will know what to do with it–sad as that outcome may be.
The last tune I tickled on it’s ivories was a shaky rendition of Lovesong by the Cure. Pretty fitting, I’d say.
I’m no longer a church pianist nor am I a worship director. I don’t even really play at all anymore. I guess it’s all behind me now but I wanted to tell you about my piano. It’s just an instrument, I know, but it was so much more than that to me and I thought you should know.
Partying with my piano, NYE 1999