Pianos strike a chord throughout county
By Sue Tiffin
Published Sept. 4, 2018
George McElroy has to remove framed photos of cherished piano, organ and singing teachers from the top of the seven-foot Steinway grand piano lovingly kept in his basement, in order to lift the lid of the instrument for a peek inside. There on the soundboard of the piano gifted to McElroy’s friend John Bailey is a signature in felt-tip pen from Henry Z. Steinway himself noting that it was personally selected by him for Miss Madeline Bone.
Bone was Bailey’s teacher, and was described in a 1958 issue of the Canadian Statesman as being, “one of the busiest and most popular of the women teachers at the Royal Conservatory [of Music].”
She was an established concert pianist, performing with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and with the Ten Piano Ensemble, a touring piano show founded by Bone’s teacher, Mona Bates, in 1931 to fundraise for war efforts.
It was around 1950 that Bone had originally tried to purchase a Steinway at Eaton’s in Toronto, but was sent to New York instead.
“I don’t think many people went down there to buy pianos, they’d buy them at Eaton’s,” said Bailey, who was gifted the piano from his teacher and friend upon her death. “But she was looking for a particular kind of piano, the sound and everything.”
Bone would likely be thrilled to see her piano in McElroy’s home next to Kashagawigamog Lake.
“She’d probably be happy to know that the piano is up here in Haliburton, which she loved, and that it’s still being played by people she knows,“ he said.
The piano is one of many in Haliburton County that has an interesting history and can be found in homes and cottages down dirt roads, carefully transported from where they were first made.
A Bechstein piano made in 1888 was gifted to the Highlands Opera Studio this year from an anonymous donor on Redstone Lake. Lauren McInnes, a former faculty member of the Royal Conservatory of Music, brought a piano with her when she moved to the area.
“My husband knew that I would never move away from Toronto unless I had my own grand piano to bring with me,” she said. “We bought it and moved up here shortly after and many kids have learned to play on that instrument, and several have gone on to study piano in university.”
Students at Haliburton’s high school with a keen interest in music who play at a high level have the advantage of playing on a Yamaha C7 grand piano, the best-selling and most-recorded piano in the world. The piano was purchased for the Northern Lights Performing Arts Pavilion through generous benefactors in the area who raised funds and made use of a Yamaha Canada program that would offer attractive and aggressive pricing to groups building a new facility.
“We were fortunate that the piano we ended up with has been praised by many excellent pianists that have played it,” said Len Pizzey, who was involved in the community effort to acquire the piano.
Pizzey said one of the most interesting comments came from Marc-André Hamelin, a super virtuoso who can play the most difficult of music and composes his own.
“He’s on the top level of the world scale of pianists,” said Pizzey. “He said it inspired him, which is quite a compliment coming from someone who is world-renowned.”
In some communities where a grand piano might not be available, Pizzey said it’s typical for pianists to go to Steinway or Yamaha and have a piano shipped to the theatre to be played.
“To play a grand piano like that, unless you have one yourself, it’s quite a different experience because it’s so responsive, so resonant, so beautiful,” he said.
Nick Jonas, the youngest member of the Jonas Brothers, appreciated the grand piano at the Pinestone Resort on which he wrote the song, “A Little Bit Longer” in 2007 so much that his parents contacted the Pinestone in 2009 to purchase that same piano.
“I would walk by the room [Nick] was in and hear him playing, and he would tell me he really enjoyed it up here in Haliburton,” then-manager of the Pinestone Cynthia Romanyk told the Echo of the Jonas Brothers’ stay in the area while filming Disney movie Camp Rock.
“The parents contacted me and asked me to find that piano that Nick wrote the song on. I told them we had it and they asked me if they could give it to him for his birthday, which I agreed to. When they arrived, Nick told me he was so excited to be getting the piano because it held a special meaning to him.”
The brothers presented the Pinestone with the platinum award they received for the song, and replaced the piano once it was shipped to California.
Jessie Pflug in Algonquin Highlands was gifted a Young Chang grand piano by her husband, Don, for her 50th birthday.
“Unbeknownst to me, my husband had planned a surprise party and invited a lot of our friends and wrapped up was a little tiny grand piano,” she said. “What he had done was just wrapped up a toy piano that he had painted black, with a card. He wanted to make sure that the one he chose for me was the one I would love.”
Jessie said playing the piano relaxes her.
“As far as how I felt my ability was, I felt this piano was certainly better than how I can play, but I have thoroughly, throughly enjoyed it and it has just been a fantastic gift, a neat thing to bring into my life,” she said.
Noting the cost of such an instrument, she said it was not something she might have thought to purchase herself.
“If he’d asked me, I would have said, no,” she laughed. “‘No way, Don!’ So I’m really, really, really glad that he didn’t ask me.”
Jessie said their lives are filled with music, as Don’s passion is playing the organ. Recently he heard of a pump organ that was on its last legs.
“Well, that was just too much to take, so he completely reorganized the music room upstairs and now this pretty little pump organ is sitting there rather than at the dump,” she said.
Lisa Kerr brought an antique baby grand Baldwin piano with her to Minden when she moved from Scarborough, but over time it could no longer be restored.
“I actually bought it when my daughter was born, to commemorate that,” she said.
Now, a Young Chang piano in her Mountain Lake home gets much use from her, her kids and their friends, and guests. It was even used this past February for a Those Other Movies silent movie event, in which world-renowned concert pianist Bruce Vogt played the soundtrack to two silent movies for 50 guests in Kerr’s living room.
Kerr has been playing piano since she was 10, and taking piano lessons from McInnes for years.
“It sounds like I’d be really good by now,” she laughed. “But I do love it. It’s kind of how I meditate and I just enjoy it very much.”
Shawn Chamberlin plays a Heintzman upright piano built in 1893 that he said had been tenderly looked after and played for years before he said he “was lucky enough to end up with it in my possession” about 13 years ago, after an owner had had it for about 60 years. It’s now at the Dominion Hotel in Minden.
He said the piano had been sitting idle but after tuning and care, it got up to snuff.
“Back then, things were built to last,” he said. Heintzman in Toronto was the number one manufacturer of pianos for homes and schools, according to Chamberlin. The piano has brought him joy and he said, “she’s super, she’s special.”
“The piano experience is more than just listening for the audience, it does as much for the performer who’s playing it,” he said. “The way that the keys feel on the tips of your fingers and the way the action responds and feeds back to you when you push a key and how it pushes back. Every piano is like a person, it has a personality and character. You get to the point where you, it’s like talking to an old friend and they respond back to you and give you feedback. That’s the joy.”
In Haliburton, Reuben Maughan has acquired numerous free pianos over the years, beginning with a piano from the Orange Lodge in Haliburton.
“It was this huge upright Williams, originally a player piano,” he remembered. “You could put a scroll in and it would play itself.”
The piano was, according to Maughan, “just enormous,” and required six people to help move it into the home he stayed at when he left for university in Kingston.
“They joked I should tether all my stuff to this piano because it was never leaving,” he laughed.
Unfortunately, the piano didn’t leave with Maughan, as it was so difficult to move.
“It’s one of the great regrets of my life,” he said. “I left it there. I really wish I hadn’t. It was just too big for me to handle. I doubt very much it would still be there.”
A five foot white grand piano is the seventh piano Maughan has taken on, his “first and only grand.”
“Some of them didn’t even make it past the garage,” he said. “They look fine, and then you get into them and realize this is never going to work, or this is going to cost too much to repair.”
When the high school in Bracebridge wanted to replace their grand piano with an electronic keyboard that took up a lot less space and required less maintenance, Maughan made the trek there to pick it up.
“It’s a lovely instrument, very responsive,” he said. “It’s one of the nicest I’ve ever played, but the case is beat up terribly. For anyone else…I just want an instrument I can play. It’s perfect for me.”
Though he said it’s the first free grand piano he’s ever seen, he acknowledges it hasn’t been without cost.
“There’s no such thing as a free piano,” he said. “You call them free, then there are expenses to tune them and move them and fix them.”
Still, it’s worth it for Maughan, who has invested time, money and energy into restoring the piano. It’s a Lester, made in 1922 during the golden age of piano building and unique because it is a North American piano. It was originally a player piano, and originally had a mahogany finish.
“There aren’t a lot of North American pianos being made anymore, so to have a North American piano is very nice,” said Maughan.
Though his piano tuner has been trying to convince him to give up on his efforts and purchase a new piano rather than save money for the next repair, Maughan insists he wants that one.
“We’ve worked on it now, so it’s not just a nice instrument, it’s a nice instrument that has care – blood, sweat and tears – in it.”
For Maughan, who has been playing piano since he was about four or five years old, having a piano in the house is essential.
“Having a piano is important to me, and an acoustic piano, too,” he said. “They’ve made amazing strides in the sound of electronic instruments but nothing beats that acoustic sound.”
Then he hesitates.
“I wouldn’t say no to a harpsichord, but that’s another story,” he laughed.