Today I got the opportunity to go to the Workhouse Cabaret for their April performance celebrating Women's History Month. All of the music centered on strong women characters or songs sung by women with strong positive messages. Sitting at a small round table in the mostly dark theater, I was transported back in time by the first singer's performance.
The piano keys tinkled through the introduction tripping a vague niggling at the back of my mind. As the singer gently began with "The hills are alive," I became again a nine year-old girl, sitting on the piano bench next to my eight year-old sister; our legs pumping just as fast as they could go, singing at the top of our lungs, "with the sound of music!"
My grandparents owned a player piano and my sibs and I would race into their house when we visited hoping to be the first to select a fragile roll and load it into the front of the upright. The rolls were old, so we had to be very careful to attach the loop of our selected music to the lower roll without ripping the browned edges and destroying the whole thing. Once it was attached, we began to pump the over-sized pedals that operated the mechanism that "played" the roll that we had selected.
As the beautiful notes wafted through the air, my nine year-old self could feel my fingers pulling against the underside of the keyboard, providing enough leverage for our legs to push the pedals hard enough. The machinery made a wheezing noise, as background to the piano music, and as we got faster and faster with the pumps they would hit when our feet released them, adding a strange clunking rhythm to the music.
Gradually, the roll of music began to unroll and re-roll onto the bar below, and the holes in the paper told the mechanism what piano keys to play. The ivory keys would depress, ghost-like, and soon all the keys were jumping up and down in time with the music. After the introductory notes played, the song lyrics would appear printed neatly between the holes in the paper, timed just perfectly so we could sing along with the music. "I go to the hills," we would squawk, panting in between lines, "when my heart is lonely."
As the end of the song got close, the lyrics and the holes disappeared - and our legs slowed. Flipping a switch would reverse the direction of the rolls and the paper would rewind back onto the original roll. This was a workout. Feet pumping, hands braced under the keyboard we rocked back and forth with the effort - until suddenly the roll would finish rewinding and flap frenetically until we stopped pumping.
And then we would begin again. My grand parents had a lovely collection of rolls of music - but my sisters and I loved two: The Sound of Music and Scott Joplin's The Entertainer. Wish I knew where that piano was today!
15 hours ago