High Desert Hoofbeats
Playing with the player piano

I can’t listen to the old hymn, “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” without thinking of my Nana’s old player piano.

It sat in the back bedroom of her house on 200 East, in a small space just off the kitchen that had a small bed, a treadle sewing machine, and the stairway to the musty basement that held canned goods and cobwebs. The room was fairly dark, with just one window, but my cousins and I spent a lot of time there watching our grandmother and aunts rock away on the old sewing machine. There was a toy box with odds and ends of old dolls, miniature cars and blocks, but the thing that really held our attention was the dark oak piano.

We were allowed to play it when it didn’t irritate the ears of our elders, but most of us could barely plunk out Chop Sticks. The thing we enjoyed most was trying to pump the heavy pedals to turn the paper rolls that told the keys where to play.

By the time I came along in the mid-Sixties the piano had seen a lot of use. Made in 1917, the heavy Conway came to Moab long ago; I don’t know exactly when. My dad’s siblings were born in the Twenties, and he in 1933. I’m sure it came to the two-story clapboard house about a century ago. All of the children in that branch of the Taylor family—four girls and my dad who was the only boy who lived past infancy—took lessons on it. They learned how to read notes and to appreciate various types of music from the classics to jazz and spirituals. That’s what many folks did back then. Musical instruments were both instructional and entertaining. Music was and continues to be a medium to be enjoyed alone or in groups. It is a glue and a balm. In my family, from both my mom’s side and my dad’s, an instrument, whether it be a piano or ukulele, was the focal point of many a family evening when I was a little girl.

Learning the basics of piano may have helped to provide foundational learning that helped my elder family complete school and attend college. Not that many women went to university back then. One of my aunts majored in music and had a teaching career in it. The same is true on my mom’s side, with its four girls and a boy. All have advanced degrees.

But back to the piano. We children would slide open the low wooden doors from which the pedals were often tucked away, and unfold them onto the floor. We would perch on the edge of the piano bench as our toes stretched to the pedals, and try to get a rhythm going. Sometimes it took one cousin on the left pedal and another on the right, with two little feet on each pedal, to have enough strength to make the thing play. In lopsided, un-syncopated style, we would crank out the music.

My grandparents probably had lots of music rolls for the piano when their kids were growing up, but by the time the third generation came around, there were just two working rolls left. And at that time, in the Sixties and Seventies, there was no Amazon from which to order more and it wasn’t a budget priority. So we were left to play “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” and one other: “Silver Bells.”

I always got a tickle out of playing a Christmas tune in the dead heat of summer. That’s generally when we would mess with the piano, when my cousins were visiting on summer vacations and school was out. “In the air there’s the feeling of Christmas…” would waft through the ginger-scented house where there was always baking and canning going on. And we would giggle and sing along.

When my Nana died in 1979, the old house was emptied and sold. Most of the furniture was also sold, too, but not the piano and sewing machine, which went to southern California with my Aunt Lorena who had them restored to brilliant luster and condition. Nor was a cedar chest that was gifted to me way back then. When my aunt died nearly 30 years ago, the piano was shipped to her son’s house in Connecticut, where another generation of grandchildren could enjoy it.

I got a call in April from my cousin John, asking if I would be interested in having the piano come back to Moab. “We are downsizing, and we want it to have a good home,” he explained. Without hesitation I said yes, I would love to have the piano shipped back to Moab.

Last Wednesday it finally arrived, no worse for the long trek. The movers deposited it in front of my porch steps, and it took a small army of us to lift it inside. It came with two boxes of music rolls that my cousins had purchased over the years. As soon as the piano had been dusted and tucked against a wall, I opened a roll, put it in place, and began to pedal away, hearing the old keys magically click away, just as they had done 40 years ago in the back room of my Nana’s house.