It always sat in the office. I remember a friend once saying it was like the White House growing up because every room in our house had a name. We had the office, the blue room, the nursery, the dining room, etc. But I always remember the piano being in the office.
Our twin home was converted into a single one-floor house. The conversion was necessary because, with five women under one roof, one bathroom wasn’t going to cut it. Upstairs lived my grandparents and my Aunt Millie. Behind us was my Aunt and Uncle, on the side were cousins. We occupied one city block in a town that was defined by nationality.
Rumor has it that my great grandfather built the house I grew up in. It remained in the family for a long time. Carson Street sat in an area of my hometown that was sometimes referred to as ‘nanny goat hill.’ While not the most eloquent or kind nickname, it was the home of the Italian Americans. The neighborhood was bookmarked by two churches, one Italian and one Polish. The church you went to defined your childhood. Weirdly we attended the Polish church because it was a stone through away from our house. Literally, it was one block away. Because of this, I also attendee Polish school for grades Kindergarten through Sixth.
The office was my home base. It housed the said piano, the Commodore 64, the books, and the vinyl. It was my favorite room in the house. That was until someone flipped the switch in the hallway, and it turned off the computer. If you didn’t have those floppy disks ready to save every 2 mins, you were sure to lose your hard work. The amount of tape on that switch still didn’t deter people from trying to save on the electric. They were the moments I didn’t love the office. Many a term paper were lost.
I have so many memories of being in the office. It had an old rotary telephone. At a very early age, my father taught me how to unscrew the mouthpiece and remove the metal piece inside so that I could listen in on my sister’s phone calls undetected. I would scan the encyclopedias for information. I would read the cover of each record like it was a special little gift just for me. I would also build rainbows on the computer with simple programs.
But the piano was my favorite part. I would sit on the bench and bang on the keys, not knowing what I was doing. The piano was my mother’s and the very same one she took piano lessons on. Fun fact, my parents met at piano lessons when they were five years old. When it was time for me to figure out what to do with this instrument, I had their teacher.
Piano lessons were nerve-racking. The yardstick would come out to make sure my back was aligned correctly. I was forced to play scales for hours and hours. We focused on classical music, of course, because the old school teachers believed in the importance of Bach and those yellow Thompson books. I remember my father pointing out to me that when I had a bad day at school, I would come home and bang on the keys, and within 30 minutes, the music became softer. That is what made me realize the importance of having an artistic outlet for myself.
Right around fifth grade, we were rehearsing for a big Grandparent’s day celebration, and my teacher suggested that I sing I lead for “Do Re Mi.” After all, I was taking piano lessons, and I had to know how to carry a tune. Up until this point, my singing was reserved for my bedroom into a hairbrush. I had never uttered a note in public, but I did that day. I sang. I sang at the top of my lungs, albeit slightly out of tune. To me, though, I was Maria Callas.
My piano teacher was a very nice old man but didn’t really fit my rebellious spirit. And now that I had it in my head, I was headed for Broadway; I needed a teacher that could help get me there. I found him in the yellow pages. I told my mother that I was switching piano schools and actually instead of piano lessons, I was going to take voice lessons. Like all good Italian American mothers, she said a litany and quickly realized this was an argument she wasn’t going to win. I was very stubborn. It’s nice to know that some things don’t change right?
That’s when I met him, the voice teacher that would shape my future. He thought I had talent, and I loved those lessons. I went every week, faithfully. I sang all kinds of music but loved my rendition of “A Foggy Day” the best. I would accompany myself on the piano and sing it over and over and over.
Then during a challenging middle school year, I wanted to do something different, so I enlisted in a competition called “America’s National Teenager.” There was a talent portion, which was the only reason I was doing it. I proudly explained that I would be playing the piano and singing “Part of Your World” from Disney’s critically acclaimed movie, “The Little Mermaid.” My family stared at me, blankly. Outside of the Do Re Mi years earlier, they hadn’t heard me sing, and I wasn’t taking piano lessons anymore. I sure do know how to takes risks; in fact, I lived for it.
I will say this about my family; they never said, “No.” They may have hesitated and questioned my choices, but in the long run, they let me live by my own rules. Here was the kicker. I would also have to have an evening gown and a suit for this competition. I didn’t own these things yet. I was 13 and the youngest of four daughters. New clothes were a luxury, and for the record, I’ve always hated shopping. I still do. Going to a store to try on clothes is the most boring activity in the world, in my opinion. Hence why I have two looks, homeless and rocker chic.
In order to get a gown and suit ready, I had to raid my sister’s closets. I had become an expert at assembling outfits from their three very different styles. Then off to Harrisburg, we went. My mom, dad, thrown together suit, old prom gown, and sheet music. It was finally time for the talent portion. This would be the first time that I sang and played for people outside of my stuffed animals. “Look at this stuff, isn’t it neat.” I belted each line and watched as my hands as they glided across the keys.
There is that old saying that goes something like, “When you wake up, if you think about writing, then you are a writer.” I woke up each day thinking about singing. I was a performer. I felt it. I believed it. One performance and I was mapping my move to the Big Apple. The funny part is, I’m not even sure if the performance was any good. I got third place, but that isn’t saying much. It didn’t matter to me much because I had found my new world.
That one performance led to many more throughout the years. I continued my voice lessons faithfully and became good friends with my teacher. I did all of our school’s musicals, community theater, and was known for singing the National Anthem. In college, I would sing the National Anthem at each basketball and wrestling home game. Another fun fact, one of my many college jobs was washing the uniforms for the sports teams. I would get dressed up and sing the National Anthem and then sprint back to the locker room to collect the sweaty outfits after the game. I learned all about elephant ear and fungus during that co-op, but it was hard and honest work.
The most devastating moment for me was when I didn’t make district chorus. I was the known singer; it was assumed I would make it all the way to the top in district chorus. I didn’t. I was cut in the first round. Talk about a humbling. Clearly, I needed it at the time. You can’t celebrate your wins without having losses to compare.
I’ll also never forget when our High School was selected to compete at the Buck’s County Playhouse. We were going to do a shortened version of “Nunsense.” I got bronchitis the day before the competition. I was playing the Reverend Mother and had no voice. The feedback from the judges was, “I’ve never seen the Reverend Mother played quite so mean.” I wasn’t trying to play her mean; I was just really sick and had no voice. I was devastated.
I continued to study voice, specifically opera until I was in my 20s. All in all, it was about 15 years. I even continued piano lessons for another ten years. I played the cello and struggled to learn the guitar. I’m still struggling with the guitar for the record. I will get it one day though dammit.
I found a fabulous voice teacher later in life who really pushed me over the edge and got my voice to a place I never thought it would be. Although I haven’t sung in years, the things I learned during my time studying voice, I use every single day. Like how to stand, how to breathe, and of course, how to project. Although to be fair, the projection also comes from being in a big family and the youngest of four. I always needed to be heard.
Now in 2019, the piano sits in my dining room. It’s over 75 years old and weighs at least 1000 pounds. The keys are yellow, the wood is scratched, but the sound is still beautiful. It holds memories of my grandparents, my parents, my youth, and of course, the office. I still bang on the keys and listen to the sound as it mellows with my mood. One day, I hope that I can play and sing again like I did many moons ago, but for now, having it here is a reminder that I still have dreams.