In so many different ways, my life has been enriched by the pianos in my life. The pianos I’ve owned and played over the years brought my life significant meaning and blessing. Here’s an account of how my pianos became a huge part of every chapter of my life.
“Life is like a piano; the white keys represent happiness and the black show sadness. But as you go through life’s journey, remember that the black keys also create music.” – author unknown.
Recently, I read an editorial in The Washington Post by John Ficarra entitled “Farewell, my beloved old Baldwin Piano.” He told the life story of the piano he purchased at great sacrifice at a young age being hauled away with the horrible thought it might end up smashed into firewood.
Reading it reminded me of the significance and blessing of pianos in my life.
My life began with a piano. My mother’s parents lived in Kansas and managed what was then called “The County Poor Farm,” where people who had no home or family went to live. Despite the fact money was scarce, they somehow scraped together $800 to purchase a piano for my mother, which she took to the farm in Nebraska where she and Daddy lived throughout their marriage.
At a very young age, about five, I think, my parents sacrificed to give me piano lessons. I recall hearing Mom saying, “I could tell the kind of day you had at school by the music you were playing when I came home from work.” My mother had a beautiful voice, and I soon began accompanying her solos in our old country church. During my high school days, I accompanied numerous vocal groups. A highlight of my life was accompanying an opera singer, whose name I can’t remember, when she came to my small town and sang a concert in the home (I thought it was a mansion!) of a resident.
In college, the piano was a cornerstone of my life. At one point, I accompanied 13 music ensembles. A highlight of my college experience was traveling to Europe with the college choir as an accompanist, and an experience surpassed only by my senior recital. At the end of the concert, Mom said, “You looked like you were having so much fun. I was more nervous than you were, having so much fun.” She was right.
In 1971 I lived on the island of Grenada in the West Indies with my first husband, where I worked as a volunteer for Church World Service. It was a beautiful island, and while I have many happy memories and am grateful for the experience, my life there was challenging and sometimes frightening. I had a history of depression which deepened while I was there. At one point, I stopped driving the car because as I drove over the steep mountain roads, I began imagining how easy it would be to go off the mountainside, and no one would know it was intentional. Fortunately, I couldn’t bring myself to do it because I knew how devastated my family would be and how God would feel about it.
One of my biggest blessings was an old upright piano left by the previous renter in our house. It was horribly out of tune, and we didn’t have the money for a piano tuner, but in the piano bench I found a treasure. A piece of vocal music written by French composer Charles Gounod entitled “O Divine Redeemer.” I had never heard the song before, but the words spoke to my heart. Often, I was crying too hard to sing, but I played the music and read the words as I played the piano—over and over again.
When we moved to India, there was no piano at first, but not long after we arrived, my grandmother (the one who had made sure my mother had a piano) died and left me $600. At that same time, I discovered that a German family was departing India and wanted to sell their beautiful hand-made 6 1/2 foot Pleyel piano. I began teaching piano to expatriate adults who found themselves in India because of their spouse’s work and had time to pursue piano lessons. A highlight of my life in India was a goodwill music tour around the country as an accompanist to a soloist sponsored by USIA (United States Information Agency). Smiles on the faces of the audience canceled out the distress of playing out-of-tune pianos with many stuck keys.
As we prepared to leave India, I’ll never forget the sight of the piano lumbering on an oxcart on its way to the ship to meet me in New York City. It arrived with a broken sounding board, but I was ecstatic to find a man to rebuild it.
When we moved from New York City to the Washington, DC, area and began looking for a place to live, it became a challenge to find a place we could afford with room for our three adopted Indian children—and my grand piano.
When my marriage ended, I moved into a small apartment. My piano and a small table with two chairs filled the living room. I remarried and moved into our first home. My husband’s best friend loves to recall the story of him and his three sons laboring to get that six-and-a-half-foot grand piano into our living room.
When we moved to North Carolina 26 years ago, the piano came with us and became the centerpiece of our living room. One day I asked my assistant, Holly, to make an appointment to tune the piano. The piano-tuner refused, saying, “This piano belongs in a museum.”
Through the grace of God and a saga too long to write today, a handmade Czechoslovakian piano made by the Petrof company sits in that space. I am thankful for it every day, and it continues to bring me joy in ways I can never express. I am thankful that God blessed me with pianos over the course of my life; for each of them came to my life at the right moment and the right time.
Barbara Hemphill, Founder
Productive Environment Institute
Helping Professionals Accomplish Their Work and Enjoy Their Lives!