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Adjacent to a twenty-story outpatient medical facility on the campus of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, is one of the top-ranked hospitals in the country. On the lower level of the hospital is an atrium named for a prominent benefactor—the centerpiece of the atrium is not a fountain, statue, or monument but a magnificently crafted Steinway piano.
But this is not an ordinary Steinway.
About fifteen years ago, an iconic professor of internal medicine was transitioning from the mansion on the hill to an extended care facility because of age and medical issues. His downsized apartment could not accommodate the piano, so he graciously donated it to our medical institution.
The Steinway had been commissioned by a prominent family in Germany in the 1930s with very specific requirements about the woodwork, the carvings, the decorations, the handcrafted accessories, and also the musical mechanics of the instrument.
The piano was eventually transported to Berlin where it was played in a public forum. A gentleman who is knowledgeable about pianos suggested to me that military and political leaders of Germany in the 1930s may have sat around that very instrument. An intriguing thought.
While in residence with the professor, the piano had been lovingly restored and tuned on a regular basis, so it was clearly in mint condition and remains so in its permanent home in the atrium.
It was a bitterly cold January evening when I tried a musical experiment at the keyboard of the Steinway.
Most accomplished pianists do not wear glasses because of the difficulty of keeping the sheet music sharply in focus along with the keys. Nearly impossible. But I was having difficulties reading the sheet music, so I thought I would try my computer glasses, in hopes they would also bring the keys into sharp focus, as they are corrected for my computer screen from a distance of about 21 inches.
I had never used this technique before and was amazed at how clear the sheet music was. The only problem: The keys were out of focus. Before abandoning this experiment I thought I would give it a try to see if I could be comfortable wearing the glasses.
Somewhat impulsively, I sat down at the Steinway, put on the computer glasses, and started to play “The Way You Look Tonight,” a familiar show tune by Dorothy Fields (lyrics) and Jerome Kern (composer) and popularized by Frank Sinatra.
I felt clumsy and awkward at first, but after a few measures the tune sounded remotely recognizable, which may have had more to do with my plodding keyboard skills than my ability to see the music and keys.
But then something interesting happened.
I could sense someone walking near the piano. Since the glasses were not designed for distance viewing, as I looked up, all I saw was a blur.
The blurred figure was obviously a gentleman. When he had my attention, he said, “Unbelievable! I travel two thousand miles, and I hear you playing ‘The Way You Look Tonight.’”
I was profoundly gratified that anyone would recognize the song especially with my new glasses. To be respectful and reasonably intelligent, I removed the glasses and saw a man in his early fifties who had the presence, the demeanor, and the decorum of prominence, prosperity, and privilege.
He was wearing a crisp white shirt with a nautical theme over the left breast pocket, loafers with no socks, and shorts. Yes, shorts, and this was Minnesota in January. The whole scene was disorienting.
I could not ignore the attire, and I asked where he was from.
“Florida,” he said, and he had just flown into Minnesota for healthcare. Since he knew he would not be outside, he kept on the attire of Floridians. In Rochester, we have a system of skywalks and subways that truly mean you don’t have to go outside in winter if you’re within the downtown hotel area and medical complex.
He then shared with me that his mother had recently passed away. She had been an accomplished musician. She had the gift of playing “by ear,” he said, meaning that she did not require sheet music. Her signature repertoire was the Sinatra song I had just played.
She had offered to teach him the piano, but he was distracted with nonmusical pursuits, he said. As is often the case when people stop by my piano practice, he expressed his regrets about his mother’s passing, the loss of not having said farewell, the angst of unfinished business, and the missed opportunity to learn from a premier musician.
He did not drill into the specifics of her death nor his relationship with his mother, but clearly he had never resolved her passing, and this regret has haunted him.
Before he left, he asked if I would “do it again,” so I very slowly and deliberately went through several dozen measures of the song. He warmly shook my hand, expressed a heartfelt thank-you, and walked off into the evening. In shorts.
We were two people who had never met and would probably never meet again. We shared a moment in time never to be duplicated. And this encounter never would have happened if I had not taken off my glasses.
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