By Daniel Schantz
It was a covert invasion of the world.
Pianos began showing up everywhere, beginning in the 1920s, quietly infiltrating homes and schools, churches and clubs, theaters and malls, bars and restaurants. Even wilderness camps, remote mission fields, and sod huts on the prairie soon had pianos. Little wonder the 20th century was called “the golden age of the piano,” and the piano was dubbed “the most popular musical instrument in the world.”
Learning to play the piano was a rite of passage for many American children back then, a part of fine breeding, before our children were seduced by soccer and software.
“It’s good for your brain,” your father would argue. “If you can play the piano, you can do anything in the world.”
And your mother added, “It will make you artistic and beautiful. Remember, boys like girls who are musical.”
Most churches had several pianos, usually uprights, because they were cheaper and more compact than a grand piano. And “upright” had a spiritual sound to it.
There was no shortage of piano players in our churches, and where there is talent, there is ego, so the music department was sometimes labeled “the war department.” Pianists were proud of their styles and had strong opinions about how music was to be performed.
Mrs. Fields, a farmer’s wife, was a female Floyd Cramer, with her slip-note style, and Roy Saloone, from Chicago, played with a trace of honky-tonk. He was only allowed to play on Sunday evenings, and the elders watched him closely.
Some pianists were strictly prim and proper, like Mrs. Starche, who always sat up straight and stiff. Only her hands moved. Even when she was eight months pregnant, she was perfectly poised.
Artie Bender, on the other hand, appeared to be suffering with stomach cramps, constantly bending forward and backward, his elbows flapping like angel wings.
Miss Swatterly got flustered when a wasp flew in the window and circled her head, during the prelude. She continued to play with one hand, while swatting viciously at the insect, until finally it stung her and flew away. In great pain, she stayed at her post, and the next song was, appropriately, “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.”
The piano was a powerful draw. It was always there, tempting someone to play with it, and it belonged to everyone. There were no piano police. Before church, the official pianist might be warming up a quartet. After services a group of teen girls would hang around it, singing “Earth Angel,” or “April Love,” or “Lollipop, Lollipop.” There were no dirty lyrics to worry about in those days.
The piano was the perfect after-services toy for children, as it was almost indestructible. Children would bang out “Chopsticks” or duets, or try to see how many of them could squeeze on to the same piano bench. “We got seven! It’s a record!”
Even late Sunday night, when everyone had gone home, the janitor could be seen sitting at the piano, quietly searching for “the lost chord.”
No one could leave the piano alone, for long.
If you were a loud, fast pianist, you would be selected to play for the spring revival.
If you were a gentle soul, you might be asked to play “Abide With Me” at Elder Elwood’s funeral, or even “O Promise Me” at a Sunday afternoon wedding.
Whether you were a beginner or a master, the piano was for you. If you were just 5 years old, you could play “Away in a Manger” for the Christmas program, using just one hand. The next pianist might perform Franz Liszt’s “Weihnachtsbaum” on the same keyboard. Thus, the piano was a kind of treasure chest, and pianists were magicians who could pull rich musical rabbits out of it.
The piano was at its best, however, when it was used to accompany other musicians. It was an acoustical instrument, with no amplifier to blast you out of the sanctuary, and it never stole the show. The best pianist was one who could inspire the congregation to sing so loudly they could no longer hear the piano. Or the pianist who could follow a soloist so unobtrusively that the two of them were like one person. The piano laid down its life for others.
The upright piano was a powerful mood-maker. On Sunday morning the pianist was a kind of Pied Piper, charming the noisy crowd to their seats by playing, “Be Still My Soul.”
During Communion, the piano was a kind of “white noise” that covered the sound of the deacon’s squeaky shoes, or the coughing and clearing of throats. But it could also bring tears to the eyes of those who were reflecting on their failures. “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind” caught my teenaged ears, one Sunday morning. I reflected on my “foolish ways,” and softly sang, “Breathe through the heats of our desire, thy coolness and thy balm.”
The most sacred time of the service was the invitation. Back then preachers always “closed the sale” on their sermons with an extended invitation, hoping someone might respond to a little extra nudge. But it was really the piano, playing “Just As I Am” over and over, that prompted someone to step into the aisle. The piano was like 88 keys to the kingdom.
Sooner or later a piano had to be moved, a task that had the potential for disaster on a scale with the Hindenburg.
An upright piano weighed about as much as a Chevy Tahoe, but its wheels were considerably smaller than the Tahoe’s, and they were not made of rubber. Piano wheels were about one inch by one-half inch, and made of the softest cast iron. The wheels had been oiled at the factory, in 1913, and had not seen a drop since then. The sound of four piano wheels screeching was like 500 fingernails on a chalkboard. You could always tell when someone was moving a piano, because neighborhood dogs began to howl. The wheels dug grooves in the wooden floor, creating a visible history of the piano’s journeys. I remember thinking it might be easier to build a new building than to move the piano.
The most exciting piano move I remember was when the deacons decided to take the sanctuary piano to the basement, down steep, narrow stairs. It usually required about six strong males, or just four Iowa farm wives. There was no good way to grip a piano—it was like trying to hold on to a 10,000-pound bar of wet soap.
We kids collected at the base of the stairs, hoping, praying, that we might witness a runaway piano that would rip off the bannister, crush the bodies of deacons, then slide across the floor and crash into the gas kitchen stove, which would explode, or something close to that.
As the piano rocked its way down the stairs, there was an ongoing dialogue by the movers, some of it unprintable. “Wait a minute, I said. Wait a minute! Are you deaf? My foot is under this thing. Look out, look out—to the left, the left, my left, you lame brain, for crying out loud! No! No! No! I can’t hold it. Watch out, watch out, watch out!”
It’s the only time I heard an elder swear. Miraculously, they got the job done, but we kids were gravely disappointed that it went so well.
When Cristofori invented the piano in 1698, he had no way of knowing that pianos would still be around more than 300 years later. Although piano sales are sharply down in the United States, they are flourishing worldwide, according to IndiGoBoom, and Americans still play the piano more than all other instruments combined. Cristofori’s is now a brand, and his original piano is preserved in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
I like to think that there is a museum in Heaven dedicated to all the selfless men and women who spent countless hours practicing for church programs, with little thanks. Surely there is a special hall of honor for them in paradise.
In 1985, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band released a song called, “The Old Upright Piano.” It was the story of a grandpa who liked to sit on the piano bench next to Grandma, while she played his favorite song, “Beautiful Isle of Somewhere.” When Grandma died and went to live on that isle, Grandpa would sit on the bench and play, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”
Yes, Jesus has been a good friend to us.
And what a good friend the piano has been to Jesus.
Daniel D. Schantz is professor emeritus with Central Christian College of the Bible in Moberly, Missouri.