The Piano: Wooden Box with Strings

By William McNeil |

Nearly all of my life I have been fascinated by the complexity and magic of the piano’s beautiful sound.

Wiliam McNeill at the PianoI learned to play the piano by ear when I was four years old, and from that time forward, the piano has been my salvation, my solace, my constant companion. Hardly a day goes by when I do not sit at my wondrous wooden box with strings and create melodies and rhythms that often lead me into a state of ecstasy and intoxication.

The piano is the world’s favorite musical instrument and the most important. Its tones range from the lowest notes of the orchestra to the highest. The piano has the ability to express music in almost any style – classical, hymns, blues, jazz, pop, tango, folk, and many other genres.

The first song I played was “Silent Night,” and the second, to please my father, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” When I began school, I took formal lessons for six years, but my ear was so strong (I had perfect pitch) I could not keep myself from improvising and embellishing the tunes. Playing by ear cannot be taught; it is a God-given gift. I was born with the ability, and I cultivated it.

As a young pianist, my repertoire was eclectic almost from the start. The hymns I learned at church morphed into ragtime renditions I played at home. From the African-Americans who worked on my father’s farm, I learned hand-clapping, foot-stomping, shouting, inspired gospel, which I loved to bang out on the piano as they sang along.

We had a record player and a collection of popular and Broadway vinyl records. Gradually, standards from The Great American Songbook broadened my repertoire. When my family went to the amusement park at White Lake, I rode the Merry-Go-Round, and the calliope played Argentine tango waltzes, called vals. I fell in love with the exotic mystery of tango. I listened to tangos on a couple of scratchy 32-1/3 RPMs and learned to play La Cumparsita (the little parade) by ear. Soon I was playing nearly all the tangos on each record.

The hub and hearth of our home was the piano, where the family gathered for singalongs. My father sang bass in the church choir, and his favorite Irish song was “Galway Bay.” I recall the many times he sang this sentimental ballad as I accompanied him. A family Christmas carol singalong was a tradition. Friends and neighbors often joined the family to add their harmonious voices to the beautiful carols.

Wilmington’s Piano Spots

The piano’s soul is woven through the fabric of the American experience, and its spirit has gladdened the hearts of Cape Fear residents for generations.

The Bijou cinema, located on Wilmington’s Front Street, had its own pianist, Alice Fisher Wells, whose pianistic creations not only propelled the moving pictures, but also provided tension and mood. Mrs. Wells played singalongs for the theater’s audiences, and the words to the songs were projected on the screen.

During WWII, one of Wilmington’s most colorful characters, Hannah Block, played piano for lonely soldiers at the USO building at Second and Orange.

In the genteel 19th Century Victorian parlors of Wilmington, the piano held prominent place in the refined environment where boys and girls of courting age could meet. In local churches, the harmonic effects of the piano’s chords were perfect for congregational singing.

The Piano in Our Lives

I recall a time before television when the piano was a staple of the middle-class living room. Before TV’s omnipresence, the piano was a source of entertainment, enlivening social get-togethers. Now the piano’s popularity is in decline. The acoustic piano is giving way to the electric keyboard, a mere toy in my opinion, that prevents the pianist from creating emotional shadings of notes.

In my house, I have an acoustic Yamaha upright with a brilliant tone. When I play musical theater tunes, such as Stephen Sondheim’s poetic ballad “Send in the Clowns,” or Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Memory,” I strive to give each note its proper emotional nuance and shading. I want, more than anything, to communicate the emotional essence of the song.

I accomplish this by the expressive nuance of touch, which involves knowing when to hit the key, how hard to hit it, and how long to hold the sustain pedal. I also employ variations in timing and loudness. Some notes have to be played louder and some softer; some faster, some slower. When a pianist fails to appreciate variations of expressivity, the performance is wooden and robotic. I value emotional expression more than showy technique.

Nursing homes around the Cape Fear area welcome me to play the piano for patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Memory impaired audiences are my favorite. I choose jolly songs from the turn of the century and up through the 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s. These songs were written with the piano in mind, and they are terrific for sing-a-longs. Through my music I resurrect for my listeners the times when they were happiest. The old songs enable them to relive their days in the sun, those days when they were an active part of the world around them. How I love to see their faces beam when I play “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” “Carolina Moon,” “Side by Side, “You Are My Sunshine,” “Love Me Tender,” “My Wild Irish Rose,” “Edelweiss,” and many other golden oldies.

Hymns are another pleasure. I cherish the Victorian hymns, and I play them often. My friends and family enjoy hearing me play my own arrangements of “This is My Father’s World,” Abide with Me,” Blessed Assurance,” and “For the Beauty of the Earth.” I also enjoy playing a spirited arrangement of that magnificent honky-tonk hymn “In the Garden.” I play it with lots of tremolos (a rapid fluttering of notes in a chord), which Southerners seem to enjoy mightily. “In the Garden” has been a well-loved funeral hymn in the Cape Fear region for decades.

tango music on pianoTango music, another of my favorite genres, is nostalgic, haunting, joyful, dark and brooding. When I play tangos, I play them with brio and high-octane energy, using nearly all the muscles in my body. Ripping out tangos on the piano necessitates stiffening my arms, hands, and fingers to perform the staccato, the rapid-fire clipping of notes, that punctuate the music’s distinctive rhythm. What a joy it is to perform tangos for dancers who love the music as much as I.

Yesterday’s songs from Tin Pan Alley and Broadway composers are the treasured standards that I enjoy playing most because the popular music of the past translates easily to the piano. The great Broadway composers—Rogers and Hammerstein, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe—to name a few, wrote music with strong melodic lines that are hummable and resonate beautifully on the piano.

Regrettably, most contemporary music is not suitable for the piano. A strong melodic line is sorely lacking in rock ‘n’ roll and hip hop. The dominant musical instrument of rock ‘n’ roll is the electric guitar, and guitar riffs are hard to translate on piano. Hip hop rarely has melody and harmonic movement is mostly nonexistent. Hip hop is all about the spoken word and the pounding, electronically-controlled beat. The beautiful melodic virtues of the piano are not relevant to hip hop. What has been lost in contemporary popular music is a sense of aesthetic subtlety. A raw, insistent, high-volume, pulsating rhythm has replaced melody, and this is another reason for the piano’s lamentable decline.

Music has been my life. The therapeutic virtues of being able to make music on the piano have sustained me and given me solace in times of sadness and distress. As we age, we begin to think of death and the possibility of an afterlife. Religious texts tell us we will hear a chorus of angels as we ascend to paradise. As for me, let me hear the sonorous tones, the heavenly notes of Chopin’s Nocturne in E Flat- Op. 9 No. 2.

Then . . . at long last . . . I will be the music.

“Music heard so deeply that it is not heard at all, But [I am] the music while the music lasts.” – T. S. Eliot, “Four Quartets”


William McNeill has performed for the Best of Our State entertainment fete at the Carolina Hotel in Pinehurst. His program/performance “TANGO: The Song, The Dance, The Obsession!” filled Daniels Auditorium in the NC Museum of History. He has played piano at venues across the state for the NC Humanities Council Road Scholars Program.

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