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The Piano Lesson
How 88 old keys found one new purpose.


Photo by Adam Ryan Morris

My wife and I were living in Boulder, Colo., when one day, our neighbor told us she and her boyfriend were splitting up.

“Charlie’s moving out,” she said. “We’re selling the piano, if you’re interested.”

I’d been strumming a guitar for a few years, and I thought I’d give the piano a try. So, with money I had gotten from a student grant, we gave the neighbors $300 and dragged the upright into our living room. The wood grain shined like amber; the octaves rang clear and precise.

We moved that piano once more in Boulder, and over the years, as our address changed, we trucked it to Minneapolis, then to Wauwatosa, scratching a few floors and straining a few backs along the way. The piano served us well. Although I never learned to play, our son and daughter took lessons, filling the house with “Go Tell Aunt Rhody,” “London Bridge,” and, at Christmastime, “Carol of the Bells.”

The kids grew up and moved out, and the piano sat soundless, forlorn and cluttered with dog-eared lesson books and dusty family portraits. From time to time, I would plunk on the keys, claw-hammer style, but my ambitions faded.

“Maybe we should get rid of the piano,” I said to my wife, Cathy, one day last spring. “It can’t be worth much. Why don’t we just give it away?” She agreed.

I placed an ad and a couple photographs on Craigslist and PianoAdoption.com, where givers and takers across the country can save unused pianos from the landfill: Upright piano w/ round stool. Good condition. Plays well and a nice piece of furniture. FREE to a good home if you HAUL IT away. Please call, text, or email.

A few hours later, I checked my email. Already, I had a dozen replies. And on my cell, just as many texts and voicemails:

Hi, Is the piano still available? I’m a music teacher looking to get a piano for my nieces.

My son Luigi is taking lessons at Family Music Center.  He is also taking voice.  He is a great 10 year old.

I am a music director from a local Spanish church.  And i would love to have this piece of furniture.

I’m just wondering if you still have piano. I dreamed in my whole life wanted to have piano at my home. Please call me or text me. Lucy

I have a friend who moves pianos professionally, so I have the means to move it asap. It would be for me and my son. I lost my piano in my divorce a few years back and miss playing. My son also took 5 years of lessons.

The messages kept coming: pleas and demands, eager and urgent and bordering on desperate.

Id like to pick up this piano today. Thanks. Text me.

What about tomorrow around 4:30? I hope I’m not being too pushy, but we’re very excited and trying to move in front of your other interested parties. We’ve wanted one for our kids for a while. They’ve been tooling around on a little table top organ we got a thrift store, but we just bought our first house so now it’s time for the real thing.

I’ll Take it. Call me in the AM

Can you hold it until the weekend so I can figure out how to get some gas money to come get it. I am going through a really rough time and I would really love to play again. If there is any possible way you could bring it here? I know that is asking a lot, and I totally understand if you can’t. I just figured I would ask.

Hi there good morning, sorry for texting this early, i was just wondering if the piano was still available?

I would come and get it but would I have to cut it in pieces to move it?

I wonder if you still keep the piano in your home? I like it so much! Even I dream a lot when I’m watching this beautiful piano pictures :) Hope I have chance to see it. I gave away our piano (free) too, because we moved to Milwaukee from another state. When my son came back home and couldn’t see the piano, he was really sad just like lost a friend, and me too... If you can help me to give me a chance to fix the pain, I’d appreciate in advance!

The longer the ad ran, the more stories I heard. I became obsessed, drawn into the lives of total strangers, imagining their musical talents and potential. Were they prodigies waiting to bloom? Future composers? The next Van Cliburn? The next Oscar Peterson? Jerry Lee Lewis? Alicia Keys?

I finally canceled the ad. I was overwhelmed. In just six days, I had gotten more than 130 emails, texts and phone calls. But who would I choose? How would I decide who was most deserving? The family with the new house? The college grad with a music degree? The 7-year-old girl who lives around the corner from a music store?

I weighed the choices for days, narrowing the list to a handful of finalists, holding “auditions” in my mind, an accidental judge.

And then … a late email: I am trying to obtain this particular piano for my friend. She was paralyzed last year and has just moved back into her house after ten months of renovation to make it wheel chair accessible. She used to play piano and wants to teach her two boys how to play. She likes the round stool because she can still wheel up to the keys with one of the boys on the stool. I would like to get it this weekend, if possible. This piano would make her extremely happy! - Bob

The answer had arrived.

On a Saturday afternoon, a pickup truck pulling a trailer backed up to our house. Using moving straps and strong backs, Bob, his friend Bill, and Chris, the husband of the paralyzed woman, lifted the piano from our living room, carried it to the trailer and hauled it away.

Months later, I took a drive.

Chris and Laura Dwyer live on a country road minutes from Okauchee Lake in Oconomowoc. They have two boys – Crandon, 7, and Thomas, 6 – and a chocolate lab-springer spaniel mix named Sampson. The boys go to school at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church. Sampson stays home and waits for their return.

Chris, 41, is a heavy-equipment mechanic, 6-foot-4 with a lion-like beard, gregarious, a good storyteller. He plays bass guitar and the saxophone.

Laura is blue-eyed and blond, quick with a laugh. Although she’s been confined to a wheelchair for nearly two years, she gets around her kitchen like a roller-derby star, spinning 180 degrees with ease as she pulls a box of Cheerios from the cupboard and an orange from the refrigerator for her sons’ breakfast.

Laura, 36, grew up on a farm and learned to play classical piano when she was about the same age as her sons. Now, she’s teaching the boys, beginning with the oldest, a couple of lessons a week.

“The piano is the gateway to all other instruments,” she tells me. An untrained player blowing air across the reed of a clarinet will make noise and not much music. But a piano is elemental. “You can create an entire song with just one finger,” she says.

Laura was a landscaper for 19 years. On an especially windy day in 2012, the day after Memorial Day, she was cleaning out a bed of wilted daffodils on a property near her home. Suddenly, she heard what sounded like a crack of thunder overhead. Instinctively, she began to run. Before she could take two steps, a 1,000-pound branch from a 70-foot sugar maple dropped on her from behind.

White light flashed in her eyes and a sharp jolt shot through her body, as if she had grabbed onto a high-voltage electric fence. When the wreckage had settled, her ribcage was cracked in 23 places, her left foot was fractured, and her spinal cord was severed at the L1 vertebra, paralyzing her from the waist down.

Today, her view of the future is remarkably hopeful. “I didn’t damage any internal organs at all,” she says, genuinely grateful. She has taken driving lessons to operate a hand-

controlled van, and she refuses to believe her paralysis is permanent, marveling at how far medical technology has advanced for nerve-cell regeneration for spinal cord injuries.

When Laura was struck down, the Dwyer family had been living in a four-room farmhouse built in the 1890s. The narrow doorways and carpeted floors were hard for her to navigate in a wheelchair. The kitchen counter was too high, the shower inaccessible.

Family and friends swiftly came to the Dwyers’ aid, donating labor and building materials for an addition to their home – a new roof, a new garage, maple flooring, cabinets, drywall, plumbing, two upstairs bedrooms for the boys, and a wheelchair ramp for Laura. When finished, the house had been expanded from 900 to 2,200 square feet.

And against a long wall in their dining room sits my old upright in a new home. On the top, lesson books, grade-school portraits and a potted fig – one of Laura’s favorite trees – ready to bloom.

Without the use of her feet, Laura cannot use the piano’s pedals, which alter volume and tone. She’s unconcerned. She’s revived her interest in playing, putting aside the classical sonatas and elegies and dirges she learned when she was young. Now, she plays ragtime and boogie-woogie, musical forms that don’t require pedals, musical forms that are brisk and bouncy, music that is lively and rhythmic and does not pause for gloom or self-pity. 

This article appears in the March 2014 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
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