My father’s sister Mary could play the piano by ear. People said she only needed to hear a song once, then she’d sit down at the piano and play it. She was born with spina bifida and died well before I was born. A gifted misfortunate. The story about her accidental death was that a bubble in an injection needle hit her heart and killed her instantly.
My father also had a cousin named Roweena who could play by ear. People said she wasn’t quite as good as Mary had been. All I knew was that Roweena seemed to carry music around in her, and she used the piano to let it out so others could hear it too. It seemed that piano playing was something you either could do automatically or not at all. I'd never met anyone who had to practice.
In fourth grade, my school offered free piano lessons. This wasn’t a regular program, just something a retired teacher offered on her own. Free was a price my parents could afford, so they said I could sign up. They bought me an old upright Baldwin for $15, which on a miner’s wages in 1964, wasn’t as cheap as it sounds.
The Baldwin was one of the better models when it was new. It had fancy wooden scrollwork on the sounding board and inlaid ivory on the keys. The fancy scrollwork also had three bullet holes in it. The owner told us they got there when he tried to shoot his wife. Luckily, the bullets missed the hammers, so the piano sounded fine. As a bonus, he included an antique piano stool coated with thick layers of white lead paint. The legs ended in eagle talons gripping clear glass balls. My parents didn’t ask what happened to the wife.
My father and a few relatives rescued the piano with a pickup truck and then slid it down into the basement of our house. My mother had plans for the basement. Someday it was going to be a fabulous 1960’s Family Circle rumpus room. At the time, though, it was a cold cement hole with only a heating furnace, two ancient galvanized washtubs, and a clothesline hanging down the middle.
My parents had little money, but the bullet hole story might have endeared them to this once grand upright because they hired Butte’s best piano tuner, Frankie Heffern, to restore its sound. Frankie worked on it for two days, taking it totally apart and rebuilding what couldn’t be repaired. When he was finished, he sat down and played for an hour straight. Frankie was blind from birth and played by ear. Like my aunt, the music inside him escaped through the piano.
Maybe because he never got the chance to know what he was missing, Frankie was not bitter about his blindness. He simply did what he needed to do and every once in a while he asked someone to back him up on a detail. I hung around as he worked. He had a physical memory of space that was wonderful to watch. He knew when someone entered a room and, if they had already been introduced, he could recognize them. He didn’t need eyes to see.
While he ate lunch he would talk about how he was raised. His parents never treated him differently than their other children. They each had certain skills and they were all expected to make the most of them. They were all expected to pay their own way through life.
One of his favorite things to do when he was my age was horseback riding. Frankie’s horse was trained to follow the lead of an older horse that his brother would ride. He said they would ride like the wind. He loved the speed. He wasn’t afraid of being out of control.
When Frankie was finished, I sat down at the keys, somewhat expecting to have music pour out of my hands but it didn’t. Sensing my disappointment, he said, “Just keep at it. Most people need to practice some. It’ll be worth in the long run. I promise.”
With the bullet-ridden Baldwin in working order, I started my piano lessons in the middle of a Montana winter. The usual temperature in my basement practice room was just a few degrees above freezing. The keys developed arthritis. A few of the most common notes, like middle C, tended to stick in the down position until manually lifted back up. My fingering began to include quick upward nudges with my thumb, an adaptation that worked its way into all my playing whether or not it was necessary. This went unnoticed by my elderly volunteer instructor. Simply staying awake through an entire lesson demanded her full attention.
With years of keyboard exercises, my hands eventually took over from my brain and I experienced a hint of being graced with a natural conduit. Though I have no desire to play for others, I've seldom been without a piano because its chords are attached to my heart.