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September is National Piano Month

piano with dappled light
Ebuen Clemente, Jr.
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piano keyboard

Tubas, organs, saxophones, drums, and violins are all important enough to get an annual national or international day of recognition, according to the folks at NationalDayCalendar.com. Pianos, however, not only get an International Piano Day on March 27th (the 88th day of the year, a wink to the piano’s 88 keys), but also a National Piano Month during September.

I was five years old when I got to stand close to someone who played the piano. My kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Floyd, would sit at the upright at the far end of the classroom and have us sing our ABC’s and so many other sweet songs of childhood.

I loved kindergarten, but I was happiest with piano time, and I could see instant mood improvements among all my fellow students then, as well. Even at that tender age I could see that music was healing. How wonderful would it be if I could do that for people, too!

I asked my mom if I could learn to play the piano in our cellar. It had come with the house because the former owners just didn’t want to move that old out-of-tune thing. Mama said if I was really serious, if the piano could be tuned, and if she could find a local teacher for me, then she’d agree. I promised her, pinky swear, that I was really serious.

I loved it and stuck with it for 12 years of lessons. I’m so grateful to have been given the gift of piano lessons.

To help celebrate National Piano Month, I thought it would be a real treat to check in with three professional concert pianists whose recordings you hear on 99.5 WCRB.

First stop: 2014 Grammy winner Michael Lewin, a world-renowned Steinway Artist who has performed in more than 30 countries for recitals, music festivals, and orchestral performances. He is both a Professor of Piano and Head of Piano at The Boston Conservatory at Berklee. I asked Mr. Lewin at what age did he know he wanted to be a professional pianist?

“When I was five years old my father took me to hear the great Italian pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli in Carnegie Hall. It was a seminal experience for me. I was completely captivated by the sound of the piano, and decided at that moment that I would be a pianist.”

He has never regretted the decision: “How fortunate I have been! The piano is the king of instruments. It can be lyrical, powerful, percussive. A solo pianist has no need for an accompanist – we play the melody, the harmony, and can create magical sonorities and endless colors. Composers have written more great music for the piano than for all the other instruments combined, many times over. To this day, whenever I hear the sound of a piano my ears are immediately pinned to it, nothing else exists. For me, every month is Piano Month!”

Here is Michael Lewin playing Franz Liszt’s Petrarch Sonnet, No. 123:

In our last phone conversation Mr. Lewin was just beaming about in-person classes starting again at The Boston Conservatory. He said that college community has taken vaccination against the corona virus very seriously so piano lessons could resume safely with student and teacher in the same room again. “As it should be.”

Another Steinway Artist, Joel Fan, was deemed a child prodigy who made his New York Philharmonic debut at age 11 after winning the Orchestra’s Young People’s Concert Auditions. The New York native studied at Juilliard’s Pre-College Division before receiving his bachelor’s degree from Harvard University. He got his master’s in Piano Performance from the Peabody Conservatory. He won several competitions from around the world and has also been nominated for a Grammy. He has been a member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble since 1998.

We spoke while he was in the midst of traveling to his next concert. He mentioned the word ‘magic’ surrounding the idea of playing the piano: “The 88 keys of the piano have been the one magical constant in my life since I was a small child. I’m grateful for the opportunities for expression and connection that is has given me!”

I asked him for thoughts about how he would describe the joy of piano playing. “The piano satisfies that most human of instincts – the desire to communicate and connect with others. In my tours around the world, I love that I can give people an unforgettable experience even if I’m not able to speak their native language.”

And finally, some thoughts about the instrument itself: “I love how the piano sounds so differently in the hands of each player. The piano provides an ideal conduit into the musician’s soul, revealing innermost passions and personalities.”

Mr. Fan plays both standard repertoire and contemporary pieces. Here he is playing his own transcription of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue:

Montreal native Marc-André Hamelin was also introduced to great piano music as a child by his father, who was an amateur pianist. Marc-André studied at Ecole de musique Vincent D’Indy in Montreal, and then at Temple University in Philadelphia. His recordings have won a host of awards including the 2000 Gramophone Magazine Instrumental Award, the 2004 International Record Award in Cannes, and seven Juno Awards, including in 2012 for Classical Album of the Year, Solo or Chamber Ensemble. He has been recognized twice by the Canadian government: he has been made an Officer of the Order of Canada and a Chevalier de l’Ordre du Québec.

I caught up with Mr. Hamelin soon after he landed in Boston after a concert in Dubai. He said “It’s truly unfortunate that the piano is generally classified as a ‘percussion’ instrument. Because of its nature, there is an element of truth to that, although at its best, and when treated with the care it deserves, the piano is to me like a living, breathing entity, full of the greatest expressive possibilities, capable of translating every adjective in the dictionary into sound. It can whisper, it can scream, it can … everything in between; it’s the perfect musical conveyor of all of our innermost feelings. And despite its black-and-white appearance, it’s filled to the brim with color, waiting to be drawn out, celebrated and savored.”

Here is Marc-André Hamelin playing his own composition, Toccata on L’homme arme:

Many thanks to Michael Lewin, Joel Fan, and Marc-André Hamelin for sharing their thoughts about the piano. They all understand the feelings of “magic” and “colors” and the grace of sharing it with others.

As for me, I was torn in half with deciding to become either a medical doctor or a concert pianist. You don’t know a high school senior’s angst until you try to choose your future career from your two great loves. I saw both as equal missions of healing for the world.

Fast forward to today: I am neither a medical doctor nor a concert pianist, but my love for the piano has never dimmed. I’m so grateful to have been given the gift of piano lessons, my longtime love and my safe place.

CODA: A tip of the hat to Bartolomeo Cristofori of Padua, Italy, the man who is credited with inventing the pianoforte around 1700. The Metropolitan Museum of New York has a short and easy-to-read article on its website to which I’ve referred a lot of folks interested in the history of this marvelous instrument.