Two nights ago I brought my son down to Madison’s Brewery in downtown Bennington, Vermont, to celebrate yet another college acceptance letter. Despite my son’s unplanned green shirt, I had neglected to remember that it was St. Patrick’s Day. We were escorted to a small dining table up rather close to an old upright piano. I felt right at home as I’m accustomed to (more often than not) sitting directly in front of a piano.
After ordering a delicious locally-crafted IPA, my son and I observed a somewhat disheveled elderly man with a piano key tie sauntering towards the piano with some difficulty. It seemed as though he was trying not to draw any attention from the staff at the restaurant as he pulled himself up onto the platform with his cane and over-sized bag draped over his arm.
Setting his bag down he noticed that there was no piano bench so Austin and I suggested one of the dining chairs nearby. In the meantime, we discreetly pushed our table a little further away from the piano so the fellow would have enough room to span the lower keys.
In between bites of my Tavern Burger and conversations with Austin, I whispered to the pianist that he might want to sit on his coat so that his elbows wouldn’t be hanging down so low. He muttered back while continuing to play: “You’re smart.” I quietly revealed to him that I am also a pianist. His eyebrows raised but he forged ahead, with another tune, quite unfamiliar to me but sounding like a dirge.
A few more songs, still played at an Adagio clip on the out of tune old upright and I had to ask:”Isn’t there one in major?” He responded with a giggle: “The Irish don’t do major.” But, the next one sounded happier and I praised him for it. He laughed and said it was his own composition and then segued into “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” to again appease my need for a more cheerful tune.
Moments later he reached into his big bag and brought out a small lamp, informing me that his eyesight was going. I helped him plug it in as leaning over was not an option for him. Then out came a thick book of Irish music. With some hesitation, he decided to prop the music onto the keys. At this point, I couldn’t have him continue without my intervention since his next piece had several black keys indicated in the key signature and the book was clearly in the way. This was a hopeless situation.
With that, I got up and shoved Marilyn Monroe from the music rack to the leprechaun as he was too polite to help himself accordingly.
Finally, he craned his neck around to ask what kind of music I play? Strictly classical, I said. Off he went on a fast romp with his newly attained nimble fingers, playing by memory Mozart’s Rondo alla Turca followed by Handel’s Harmonious Blacksmith and Paderewski’s Minuet. I think he was testing to see if I knew these pieces and got a kick out of me shouting out the composer names and titles one after the other. At this point the entire restaurant was fully engaged and clapping after each piece.
Somewhere in his youth he had had some good training (he mentioned some nuns from Massachusetts) and his chops are still working. A local businessman, John Shannahan, from the Better Bennington Corporation (BBC), scooted up to the pianist and insisted he learn who I was and that I run international piano camps. We all had a belly laugh about our impromptu and serendipitous seating arrangement .
This kind and unassuming gentleman was the quintessential entertainer, wanting to charm his audience of one…and all. My son, though originally the one being toasted, enjoyed observing how the evening twisted and turned into something magical and musical. I’m still smiling.