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Requiem for a Piano Bench | President’s Post By Laura Stigler

30 Apr 2024 10:12 PM | Laura Stigler (Administrator)

Sometimes little accidents can be inspirational enough to write about, turning what was sadly unfortunate into something fortuitous. As what has happened to me. If it didn’t happen, I never would have written the following story, which ended up winning an essay contest and was published in the 2023 “Play”-themed anthology produced by the TallGrass Writers Guild. I’m sharing it here to serve as inspiration to you. And prove that while it may not be immediately apparent, oftentimes sad little accidents can have happy endings. Simply by putting pen to paper...


My piano bench died today. Yup. Just like that. Came crashing down when our pear-shaped piano tuner was doing his thing, scooching back and forth from one end of the bench to the other, diligently twisting the strings of the 60-year-old keys until they were precisely in tune. 

How did it come to this? Why? Why? I blame myself. Why couldn’t I have left well enough alone?

The piano hadn’t been tuned since God-knows-when. I was fine with that! But the other night, after not having touched the instrument for several months, I spontaneously decided to noodle around with the melody of a song I was working on. Upon striking the first few keys, I recoiled at the sound. It was wavering. Tinny. Like the far-off strains of a piano in an abandoned ballroom, circa 1944. I could see it all now: The ghosts of soldiers and sweethearts, perhaps their last time together, slow dancing to Irving Berlin’s “When I’m alone...with o...nly dreams...of you...that won’t...come true... what’ll I do?...”  

“Oh gosh, I really need to call the piano tuner,” I said to my husband. But of course, as with most everything else on my to-do list, I forgot to do it. Lo and behold, the very next day the tuner called. OMG! I couldn’t get over the coincidence. Providence. He left an ominous voice message, “Hey, Laura, the last time I tuned your piano was in 2017! You know, letting it go on that long is very dangerous. It starts to turn into...a project.”

Not liking the sound of that, I couldn’t make an appointment fast enough. We set it for today. And it was while I was preparing his tea to the soundtrack of the unrelenting, headache-inducing pounding of keys (BONK. BONK. BA-BONK-BONK. BONK.) that I heard the crash. Followed by...silence. Mind racing, not knowing what disaster I was going to encounter – collapsed shelves of cherished family pictures? My one-of-a-kind ceramic rooster lamp, shattered? -- I rushed into the living room to discover the tuner, sitting bewilderedly on the floor, surrounded by rubble, rubbing his wrist. I worried. For many reasons. Were those stars circling over his head...or dollar signs? I screamed, “Are you ok? Are you ok?” “Yeahhh, yeahhh. My wrist feels a little sprained though,” he softly whined. Having once fractured my own wrist, I knew he would have found it intolerable to move his, were it broken. What a relief. If anything, now we could sue him.

No longer having to put a call into 9-1-1, it was time to assess the situation. Like a bad accident, it was hard to look. But look, I did. My heart sunk. There was the piano bench, contorted. Lopsided. Two of its legs had jettisoned across the room in opposite directions, like the legs of the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz after having the stuffing beat out of him. Except instead of hay, jagged shards of dried wood jutted out from the “hips,” where they once joined with the seat of the bench. No orthopedic surgeon in the world could have salvaged this sad mess. Prognosis: Hopeless. The poor bench lay there. Helpless. Unable to right itself, as if crying out “Help! I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!”

But the last straw – as it were –  was seeing all of the bench’s contents spilling forth --  everything that was kept safely in its possession since the day I started learning to play. The workbooks of scales and exercises, notated in my 2nd-grade handwriting. The sheet music. The music books. Anthology books: Great Songs of the ‘60’s...Great Songs of the 70’s. It all came tumbling out. And with it, the memories.

My sweet bench. The one I first sat on when my parents surprised me with the piano, a Hobart M. Cable spinet bought at Marshall Field’s. It took my breath away. The maple wood, waxed and glowing. The keys, all shiny in their stark black and whites, like a reception line of gentlemen dressed in sharp tuxedos. And the fragrance of that wood! As intoxicating as the smell of a genuine leather handbag. Or a new car. My parents were glowing, too, just seeing how happy this all made me. No longer will I have to practice on a cardboard keyboard. 

The bench... 

The one I sat on in the summer, dining room windows flung wide open so our Swedish neighbors could hear my rendition of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Younger than Springtime” – my mom egging me on to play it again...and again...and again, because, she said, she loved the tune so much. Her sneaky way of getting me to practice and perfect it.

The one I sat on when I played a haunting little waltz called “Airy Fairies” – my dad’s favorite tune. One that he’d always request out of the blue. “Play ‘Airy Fairies’, will ya, Laur?” “OK, Dad.”

The bench. The one my older brother sat on, reluctantly banging out “Anchors Aweigh” with no feeling whatsoever. He’d rip through it so he could dart off to play more favored games. Work on his model airplanes. Or pour over his latest issue of Mad Magazine. He hated to practice. And hated when I practiced, sometimes giving the upper keys a few indiscriminate, spiteful bangs as he passed by. I’d pretend not to notice, figuring I’ll get my revenge later.

The bench. Where my little sister sat, dutifully playing before our mild-mannered Austrian piano teacher, Mr. Witz, who sat slumped in a dining room chair next to her, nodding – not to the tempo, but to sleep. Such was the soporific effect of having just consumed the Saturday night lox-and-bagel snack my mom would serve him as he taught. Mrs. Witz, wearing not a stitch of makeup but who did manage to balance a faded auburn beehive atop her head, would sometimes show up with Mr. Witz. He must have told her about the lox and bagels. Mom would kindly serve her, too, as my sister played on, mistakes going unnoticed.

This was the bench where my first boyfriend sat – the one who loved me, but whose heart I so sadly broke. I regret the way I did it to this day. My Grandma described him as a “lang loksh” – Yiddish translation: a long noodle. He was very tall. He’d entertain our family, playing bouncy ragtime tunes, his wingspan extending beyond the width of the piano as the sleeves of his yellow 70’s-style shirt billowed to the beat. Of course my Grandma and Aunt kept nudging each other in an effort to stifle their laughs, seeing the whole image as comical. Like a cartoon in the New Yorker.

It was the bench where my best friend in college and I once sat as she gave me words of advice when I was distraught about being judged by a couple of snobs in my theater group. “What makes you think you can’t judge them?” It completely changed my point of view.

And it was the very bench upon which I sat and learned “Tico-Tico” and Bach’s “Solfeggietto” – two incredibly intricate pieces. Yet after much practice, I somehow got through them, and even played them well enough to sound like I knew what I was doing. Although I’m quite sure Van Clybourn would have winced. I played the piano. But I was no pianist.

The bench. The one that would migrate with my husband and me as we’d move from apartment to condo to condo to condo, always serving as extra seating around the dining room table whenever our big, beautiful family would come to visit. Back when everyone was alive.

The bench that, for decades, sat empty in front of an inexplicably silent piano until 2010, when I started to write songs, opening a whole new dimension to our marriage. After so many years of neglect, the bench was still there, holding no grudges, welcoming me back as I notated my melodies and tested them out. The long absence from the piano necessitated the tuner, who returned every year since.

And now this.

Oh, my little piano bench, how I miss you so. 

But at least I still have the piano.

-- Laura Stigler

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