Campfire Stories around a Truly Grand Piano

In the lobby of Mayo Clinic’s Gonda building is a magnificent baby grand piano. It is a Bosendorfer, one of the finest instruments in the world, and it is available for anyone to play. So I do.


These pianos are handcrafted in Europe. Only about a dozen or so are produced each year, and the family of craftsmen have been producing these incredible instruments for centuries. These fine pianos stand in stark contrast to the mass-produced pianos. I consider this the Stradivarius of pianos.


As an amateur musician myself with deteriorating and marginal skills, I try to practice at the Bosendorfer at least an hour a day to fine tune what I thought was a promising career (considering my real job is a cancer specialist with an office upstairs in the same building). It is relatively easy and comfortable to play my own piano in the privacy of my home. It is a completely different experience to play in public. And I look forward to these moments to sit down at one of the finest pianos in the world. A privilege.


Each evening as I struggle through a recital piece or polish an old favorite, almost without exception someone approaches the bench and shares a story. From the time of antiquity humans sat around a campfire and shared stories. At the piano—my piano—they also share stories.


One evening I came down the elevator with my sheet music, intending to practice before heading home. But a disheveled, unkempt gentleman possibly in his fifties was at the keyboard. I had seen him play on occasion, and he was technically excellent.


This evening, his shirt was not tucked in, and he especially had the look of someone who had a hard life. He was overweight. Next to him near the piano was a battered suitcase, the kind that would typically fit in an overhead compartment of a plane. Like the musician, the bag was worn and tattered.


He did not read sheet music, yet was a superb performer. He was in the zone with a lilting piece. I suspected that in his younger days, he may have been the total package of performance.


I respectfully waited until he was finished so I could humbly sit down with my sheet music to rehearse a piece. To be very honest, he was a pain in the neck. When I played, he stood over me with an intimidating posture. And he freely offered unsolicited advice about technique and scales and showmanship. Like with unsolicited advice on the golf course, you just should not offer it.


At one point my irritation showed. I did not need his recommendation since I had been working with a professional coach for many years. He packed up his belongings, consumed 16 ounces of coffee in about four seconds, and shuffled across the lobby with the gait of someone who needed knee replacements.


The expectation with use of the piano was to play for no more than sixty minutes. I know our disheveled pianist had been criticized by a newly minted MBA administrator in a three-piece suit and shiny wingtips for playing for two hours on occasion. “Sir, you are overstepping your time. You need to leave.”


One evening as he was packing up so he wouldn’t be berated yet again for playing too long, I became inquisitive after introducing myself. I prompted, “Tell me your story.” And here’s what I learned.


This gentleman freely admitted that he was on his way to the big stage, but became derailed by alcoholism. He had some notable gigs, supported some of the top names in the industry, and a Google search confirmed his veracity. He then disappeared into the netherworld of a studio band. He would be basically a contract worker brought in for several days, working in relative obscurity with little recognition despite his skill.


He shared with me personal setbacks in terms of two divorces and ensuing financial issues, and with some embarrassment, he told me, “Doc, this is all I have. This is the only place where I get a pat on the back.”


Over the months we developed a friendship, and I was touched by his honesty and his comment that he had made poor choices.


The message for each of us goes something like this: Be nice, be kind because it is the right thing to do, and we never know the burdens other people carry.



Edward T. Creagan, MD, FAAHPM, a cancer specialist, is the first Mayo Clinic doctor board certified in hospice and palliative medicine. His new book, Farewell: Vital End-of-Life Questions and Candid Answers, is about navigating those precious last days, at the bedside, and saying farewell with hope, love, and compassion.


In the glorious marble lobby of the soaring, sun-filled Gonda building on the campus of the famous Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, sits a concert-quality grand piano. The diminutive figure in a black suit often found playing this magnificent instrument may often be Dr. Edward Creagan. These blog posts are written from his encounters with patients and others who are drawn to his music and compelled to tell their stories. He listens. He plays. And he writes stories about people others don’t take time to get to know.

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© 2020  Edward T. Creagan, MD, and Write On Ink Publishing