[Watershed Presents]

The Travelling Grand

Over the years, a constant musical companion brings a sense of comfort and continuity to a beloved pianist’s life

My mother played piano in a dance band during the war and for many years after with my father in a band called the Serenaders. My sister trained to become a concert pianist with the Royal Conservatory of Music. And on my grandmother’s occasional visits, she would play for us; her fingers flew over the keyboard while she leaned heavily on the sustaining pedal and squashed the notes together in ringing harmony. I remember thinking that’s how you played the piano when you were a grownup. Pianos, as you can tell, have always played a major part in my family’s life.

As I began to play and got to know the piano better, I found reading music took too much time; so I played just like my mother – by ear, and not necessarily in the proper key. “Just give me your starting note,” I would say to the person I was working with, because even without formal training, I could play any song, in any key. I began to perform professionally, sometimes with a singer or a group and a list of songs – but never with any written music.

I met and married my husband Allan in Kingston in 1960. Soon after, we relocated to Toronto, had four children, and then moved to Calgary. In those early years of our marriage, I did not have access to a piano. So when we moved back to Toronto, I finally declared to my husband that I had to have a piano. We purchased an older upright with a lovely sound, and I started playing professionally again.

As I performed at various venues around Toronto, I had the opportunity to play on many different kinds of pianos. But there was one in particular that I really enjoyed: a Kawai baby grand made from a beautifully polished brown oak – not the typical shiny ebony black we so often see.

When my husband retired, we chose a home nestled on a beautiful property in Baltimore. I say “we,” but I was often living in Toronto and working in music while he stayed in Baltimore full time. We continued this arrangement for a while until my husband finally said, “If I bought you a grand piano, would you come live in the country?” Before I could think seriously about his offer, fate intervened, and my husband became seriously ill and died.

For a year or so after his death, I continued to commute between Toronto and Baltimore, not sure of where I wanted to be.

One day, while visiting a music store in Cobourg, I spied a grand piano. Not just any grand piano, but the same make and model as the Kawai I loved playing in Toronto – same colour, same size, same rich sound. It was on consignment to the store, and I decided right then that I had to have it. As soon as my driveway was dry enough to bear the weight of a moving truck, the piano was delivered to me, and Baltimore became my permanent home.

That December, my friend June invited me to her annual country Christmas party. Little did I know that she had charmed a neighbour into bringing his clarinet to the party by suggesting “I might have a friend who plays the piano.” That’s how I met Bob Homme, better known as The Friendly Giant. The two of us established a joyous harmony and we soon began playing together at all sorts of social and musical events. When Bob was honoured with the Order of Canada, he and I were invited to play together at the ceremony. It seemed important to have my baby grand there for this auspicious occasion and so I called the local piano mover and had it delivered to the Grafton Inn where the investiture was to take place. Bob and I played for Governor General Roméo LeBlanc and guests, and the piano began to earn its reputation as “The Travelling Grand.”

As I walked into the front room of the Inn, I saw an amazing sight: my grand piano sitting in a bay window, tuned and ready to play!

I played at The Mill in Cobourg for two New Year’s Eve celebrations with famed jazz singer Arlene Smith and bass player Rick Homme (Bob’s son), and of course, I had to bring my baby grand. Returning the piano to my home after our second New Year’s Eve gig at The Mill was challenging. Ontario was in the midst of a massive ice storm. We survived the treacherous roads and the piano slipped safely home, but I began to worry about the state of health of the instrument. It wouldn’t travel anymore, or so I thought.

When it was time to sell my property in Baltimore and move to a condo in Cobourg, I asked my daughter if her family would like to take the piano. Like the generations before them, my daughter and granddaughter are musical and were thrilled to have the piano in their home. When I asked our intrepid Cobourg piano moving company about delivering my keyboard companion to Toronto, they said incredulously, “You’re not moving it again, are you?” They agreed and true to form, they struggled up the front stairs of the piano’s new home where it would be safe, sound, and most importantly, loved.

A few years later, I received a call from my daughter: She and her husband were temporarily relocating to St. Martins, New Brunswick to ride out the pandemic. The piano was left behind in their Toronto home.

I was so relieved when the Covid restrictions began to lift and I was finally able to visit with them in this charming community on the beautiful Bay of Fundy. Just days before my trip, my daughter called me and asked if my piano could be moved once again. She promised that it would live in a lovely inn owned by friends in St. Martins and would be well taken care of. I agreed.

The first night I arrived, we headed to The Beach Street Inn for dinner. As I walked into the front room of the Inn, I saw an amazing sight: my grand piano sitting in a bay window, tuned and ready to play! I stood looking at my old companion with tears in my eyes I learned that the week before my arrival in St. Martins, my son-in-law, Bob had borrowed a truck and trailer from a friend, moved the piano out of their Toronto house, and driven it to New Brunswick so it would be there when I arrived. What a journey for the piano – and me.

I sat down, and with trembling hands I started to play. My grand piano sounded as it always had, and in that moment, I was no longer an 83-year-old lady who didn’t walk very well. Music filled the room, and I smiled to myself: “I can still play if you give me your starting note – and I don’t think I sound like my heavy-footed grandmother!”

As in times past, the community is gathering around my baby grand to sing and enjoy music. I think that’s a happy beginning for St. Martins and a new adventure for my special piano.

Story by:
Shelagh Purcell

[Winter 2022/2023 departments]