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Essay from February 2010
"Thoughts While Playing the Piano"
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I look at my audience and wonder what they're thinking. Why would a man in a plastic brace over his chest and abdomen (I call it "the turtle shell"), sitting in a partially dismantled wheelchair, want to try to entertain similarly handicapped persons by playing the big black grand piano in the dining room of the Canyon Rehabilitation Center? I wonder myself. I think it does me good -- I'm not sure it helps them much.

At home I play a little $400 keyboard. All I have to do to get sound out of it is touch the keys. The grand piano is different and I have to strike the keys with enough force to carry through a long and complicated series of connections. But I'm doing it, or trying to. The errors don't improve the finished concert project, but the effort is worth it nevertheless.

I am not a very good pianist. Why me? How did this happen? There was a sign on the impressive grand piano in the corner of the dining room: "Do not play the piano." My son Andy asked the woman from administration, "What does this sign mean?" She said, "Oh, that's for people who can't play the piano." Andy said, "My Dad can play the piano." Next thing I know, I'm playing for the dining room audience, before breakfast and before lunch.

Now I have a theme song. It is Boogie Woogie 1942. I inflict on this strange audience all the stuff I've been trying to memorize, all the way from Arkansas Traveler to Elmer's Tune and Why Don't You Do Right? Already people are bringing me stuff to play. I read music fairly well, so I give it a try, slowly at first, but it picks up with repetition. Things like Go Down, Moses and Seeing Nellie Home.

I look again at the audience. The majority are incapable of any type of participation or response. A few nod their heads in correct time with the music. Some in the audience really get into the rhythm by moving loose body parts. My mistakes throw them off, but that doesn't seem to bother them much.

There is a class of people, I suppose, who would find all of this dreadful. But not everyone does, I have received signals from handicapped (former) musicians. And people who care about me are glad that I have this opportunity. And people who care for individuals in the audience thank me for the effort.

It still seems that this whole business has more to do with me than anyone else. Writing is very different under the current circumstances. Mounting that required effort tells you more about me than it tells me about you.

What a strange thought, come to me while playing the piano in a strange set of circumstances!

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Copyright © 2010 Harry Willson

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