I don’t know how I learned to play the piano.
It’s such a ridiculous history that I’m having trouble writing about it. But, ridiculous as it may be, I’m going to try to tell you, as clearly as I, in my senior of senior years, may relate the story and attempt to put all the fatuous facts together.
To begin, when my parents decided to wed, my ingenious and extravagant father bought the most wonderful gift a person might contemplate giving to his beloved bride: a piano (Mom told me it cost him a thousand dollars).
A Weber piano, and even more important, this was not just a regular piano. Eighty-eight keys, some black and most white. But spectacularly unique at that time was a most innovative feature: this piano was one that played piano rolls. They called them “player pianos”.
It was a wonderful invention. My mother was beyond herself. At times, she would sit there all by herself, inserting her favorite piano roll songs, and pumping the pedals to produce a marvelous reproduction played by one of the favorite performers of that day: in most cases, a fellow named Lawrence Cook. A popular advertisement at the time for these pianos said, “Wonders will never cease! Grandfather’s playing the piano”. The player piano was a marvelous invention; very much like the beginnings of radio, and TV, which were later invented and came upon the scene as family favorites.
The biggest difference was that at the time it came out, people simply loved the sound of a piano. They were so enamored with the idea that families could really benefit by having one of these unbelievable instruments in their own living rooms. Then, everybody could enjoy listening to the marvelous sound of a great piano, played by a great pianist, right there in their homes at the rendering of their favorite music and favorite songs. World famous composers and song writers were born because they had a piano in their homes, though not necessarily a Player Piano.
Naturally I played around with this wonderful giant of a piece of furniture that took up most of the space in most modest family living rooms – or hallways – or porches. Believe it or not – – – even in kitchens! Wherever the floors would support it, that’s where the massive, magical and most heavyweight revered item would find an almost sacred place in our homes.
My Mom, because she loved music so much, would spend every extra dime she managed to put aside to buy piano rolls. Not just popular songs. Many of the rolls were serious classics (The rolls were a dollar each. Classical was a dollar fifty).
The family always joked and found it so amusing to tell stories about my uncle Emile, who was a professional piano player. He loved to visit us and of course his visits always consisted of much playing of the piano (our wonderful Weber). They tell me that when he played, I would slither myself under the piano, almost always in the way of his foot and the volume control pedal, and simply lie there, completely enthralled and mesmerized by the beautiful sounds and melodies he would enchant upon us.
I must have been only three years old, but believe it or not, I believe I can still almost recall those precious moments, which eventually reacted on me, in later years, to instill within me the absolute desire and almost natural obligation to continue to make such music for those who would appreciate and would listen to the music I made.
To play the “rolls”, I was too short. My tiny short legs couldn’t reach to pump the air pedals without standing on the pedals, and holding onto the stand that was meant to hold the music sheets when a standard player performed, sans rolls. In this position though I could not sit with my seat on the piano stool, but I could reach the pedals and I played hours and hours just to bear the beautiful sound of the family Weber.
Something else that was most remarkable to me was that when the rolls played, the piano keys went up and down and indicated the very notes the expert piano roll player was actually touching while playing. It didn’t take much time before I learned that the keys signified the sounds I was loving. So, I memorized all the key depressions.
I found I didn’t need to be so uncomfortable to be playing the music I loved after all. I had memorized the action of the keys, and could eventually play exactly the same music as the piano player, and without placing a roll in the machine.
I remember in one place we lived, you couldn’t enter the house without passing where the piano was. I was playing something one day and my mother carrying a large bag of groceries in each arm, looked at my aunt, who lived with us and took care of me, and silently, clearly mouthed, “That’s him playing! Not the rolls. He’s actually playing that himself”.
Was I to be the first person to learn to play a piano by magnetizing my fingers to the keys that were in action? Could Mozart have done the same if he had a player piano? Beethoven or maybe Gershwin (actually, he might have owned a player piano).
Well, from there, even I knew that I should have proper training from an expert. The first expert was Sister St. Alphonse and she taught me, after several occasions where she rapped my knuckles with the blunt end of the scissors she always carried attached to her sash, much like the western gun fighter’s holster.
I had several other teachers after the good Sister started my formal musical training. Some great, and believe it or not, some greater after sessions with me where they learned some things they didn’t know about piano playing.
Currently I don’t play very often and it’s not for the lack of a piano to play on, because I have three of them. All resting because they have served me well through the years since the days when I literally used to hang onto the piano so I could reach to pump the pedals. Those early days when the family and visitors laughed every time I would go to the piano and play the rolls they wanted to hear.
The fancy gymnastics I had to perform to get the piano to play the music may have been the reason why they always laughed when I sat down to play.
Born in Montreal, Lauriate is bilingual; his mother a Geordie from Newcastle on Tyne, his father a French Canadian Quebecer. Lauriate has traveled widely and has lived in Europe. His involvements are primarily of a creative nature focused on Music, Graphic and Literary Arts in the communications fields of Advertising and phases of the Entertainment business through television and film production.