News Column

How does your garden grow? With baby grands and uprights

July 27, 2014

By K.C. Mehaffey, The Wenatchee World, Wash.

July 27--WINTHROP -- In the foothills south of Winthrop, several old pianos built in the late 1800s and early 1900s are artfully arranged in a small clearing of the forest on a bench above the Methow River.

A gate made from the framework of a grand piano draws visitors into this place, protected by tall trees, yet open to the elements.

Grand pianos, uprights, even a player piano are all "planted" in this garden plot near Howard and Liz Johnson's home on Signal Hill Road.

Some are placed at an angle -- submerged part-way into the earth -- their harps inviting gentle plucking or boisterous strumming by visitors. Others, with their legs firmly set in the soil, look like you could sit down and plunk out "Go Tell Aunt Rhody" under the majestic ponderosa pines.

A path weaves its way around these 11 noble instruments, and a few small signs help explain the intent of this unusual garden.

The Johnsons had planned a grand opening for their newly built Piano Garden Saturday. It was also to be open during Methow Valley Chamber Music Festival concerts. But when the Carlton Complex fires raged through the valley, knocked out power and spewed smoke into the air, all festival events, including the Piano Garden's grand opening, were cancelled. Liz Johnson said they will reschedule a reception for the garden, and it will be open to visitors during next year's festival.

To Howard Johnson, this garden is a final resting place for these beautiful instruments that started as giant trees, were transformed by master craftsmen who lavished attention on their work, and were then loved and played for decades before they fell into disrepair.

A hundred years after the height of piano-making, old pianos are now flooding the market. Today, buying a new piano is often less expensive than the labor-intensive cost of repairing an old one. And many people are turning to lighter-weight electronic pianos or easy-to-move keyboards instead of making space in the living room for someone's old and out-of-tune piano.

The Piano Garden is an idea that sprouted last summer, when the Johnsons were hosting Methow Valley Chamber Music Festival concerts in their renovated barn.

Local pianist and composer Lynette Westendorf mentioned her vision of a piano that had outlived its useful life, set part-way into the ground as if growing from the earth like a plant.

The Johnsons decided several pianos would make a nice garden. Liz Johnson said it was one of those ideas they planned to kick around for a bit before acting on it. Howard -- although planning to retire soon -- was still traveling all over the county for his work as an electrical engineer. But they told a few people of their plans.

"The next thing we know, we got a phone call from Prosser saying, 'We're closing our warehouse,'" she said. It was filled with old pianos, just waiting for someone to refurbish them.

Howard recalled arriving at the warehouse with a hay truck after agreeing to take six of them. He watched the gloved piano movers carefully rolling out a grand piano. They used special equipment to turn it sideways, then asked him if he brought some kind of a board to lay it down into the bed of the truck.

He hadn't. "So I pushed it, and it fell," he recalled with a smile. "There was a really nice sound it made when it fell, too," he said. "And then I said, 'Now we're going to stack them.'"

To the workers, the idea came as a bit of a shock, at first. But they soon realized, "It was a lot less work."

People treat pianos -- especially grand pianos -- with the utmost of care, Johnson noted. "Every piano is special to the people that own it," he said. "They don't want to scratch it. 'Don't put a Coke on it, you'll make a ring.' All those things your mother tells you," he said.

So many still look beautiful when they reach the end of their useful lives.

And just as every piano is special to its owner, many people -- even if they don't own one today -- at some time in their lives had a relationship with the piano, he said.

His own relationship began in fourth grade, when he struggled to learn the piano, failed, and then later used his computer skills to create a series of computerized devices that played music automatically. "A machine can play notes with fantastic precision, but there's no soul in the music," he said. So after his early experiments with computer-generated music, he picked up the bass, and now plays in a jazz trio at local restaurants.

For Liz Johnson, from the time she was a baby, the sounds of piano lessons rang out almost daily through her house as her mother taught students after school from 3:30 to 7 p.m. After many years of taking lessons herself, she turned to handbells and is now a percussionist.

The Johnsons have no personal ties to the pianos planted in their garden, except for those given to them by friends. One, which was made in Cincinnati, commemorates a friend's brother, a pianist who died young, in Cincinnati. Another was donated by a local rancher whose mother had played it for years.

All of the pianos have a story behind them, although not all those stories are known. One of the grand pianos had been in storage, and the man who owned it hadn't paid his bill, so he traded it for what he owed, Johnson said. The storage owner later discovered it had a cracked soundboard, and was a cheap brand. Johnson decided to paint it in camouflage colors, just for fun. He believes it's the world's first camogrand. "It's my stealth piano. The soft pedal is always on," he joked.

Since word got out about their garden, the Johnsons have had many more offers -- one source had 20 to unload, and another had 50 pianos to choose from. "Liz said, 'You better use the 12 you have before you take more,'" he said. And he agreed.

Parts from the 12th piano, which is not yet planted, were used as roving advertisements for the Methow Valley Chamber Music Festival.

The garden will be open to the public only during festival events, and at its grand opening, which has not yet been rescheduled.

The Johnsons say they aren't planning to maintain the garden and won't try to preserve the pianos planted there. Instead, as the wildflowers take over, these pianos will slowly return to nature.

"Once they disintegrate, I'll dig up what's left and burn it all, and extract the big cast iron harp that is its core," he said. "And we'll make more art out of that."

Reach K.C. Mehaffey at 509-997-2512 or Read her blog An Apple a Day or follow her on Twitter at @KCMehaffeyWW.


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Source: Wenatchee World, The (WA)

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