Graham Center piano attracts the melodic, the dissonant and the inharmonious

It’s free to play – and, boy, do they ever.
It’s the musical equivalent of “If you build it, they will come.” In this case, the exact line should read: If you plunk a piano in the middle of a busy student center, they will play it.

The “they” are mostly young men, non-music majors with a love for the instrument but none to call their own.

So they come in a nearly non-stop procession to tickle the ivories – or bang on the keys, as the case may be – of a public baby grand piano.

Located in the Graham University Center (GC) at the Modesto A. Maidique Campus in a lounge filled with overstuffed modular furniture and sporting an FIU-blue carpet and walls covered with student art, the black beauty attracts students who primarily want to express themselves.

Kevin, the self-taught bio major

“I do it for myself,” says freshman biology student Kevin Hernandez, who has played the trumpet for seven years but began teaching himself piano only months ago. “I don’t want to be a piano player in a band.”

Kevin Hernandez biology major

The talented Kevin Hernandez typifies the GC pianist: young, male, undergraduate. 

At home he has a 77-key electronic keyboard on which he started playing by ear.

“It does all these fancy tones, all these synthetic sounds,” he says. “But the real thing is always better. When I find a real acoustic piano, I usually play on it.” At FIU, during student orientation, he recalls, “The minute I saw it, I was so happy.”

So he jumps at the chance to practice popular songs such as Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” and Adele’s “Someone Like You,” with the occasional “Phantom of the Opera” or Beethoven’s “Tempest Sonata,” third movement, thrown in for good measure. Like most of the musicians who lay it on the line in GC, Hernandez plays without sheet music. He does, however, interrupt himself to take cell calls and check his phone for texts, and he regularly stops and starts to replay sections of songs that give him trouble.

The results? Well, um, far from concert quality but definitely better than your little sister’s first recital.

FIU’s Got (Some) Talent

“Sometimes, it’s like, ‘You shouldn’t be practicing in public,’” says sophomore Shannon O’Neal of what she hears emanating from the instrument. She is one of the accidental audience of students and occasional professors who congregate in the area to work on laptops, sip Jamba Juice, socialize with friends and take naps. Other times, O’Neal adds, “It’s really good.”

The staff of Orientation and Parent Programs, who work in office space immediately adjacent to the lounge, confirm the mixed bag of skill levels.

“The majority do have talent,” someone says to general agreement. Adds student assistant Kenya Adeola with a smile, “Sometimes they play really pretty songs.” But then she recalls the guy who brought along a guitarist, a saxophonist and singers, and her face clouds over.

And as music often does, the tunes generated at the GC piano have stirred strong emotions. Several months ago, the FIU school newspaper published a story online about a student who reportedly hurled insults and then textbooks at a pianist who played the same three songs over and over again in a seemingly never-ending loop. “His major must be music annoyance,” quipped one witness.

Gabriella, the pre-med pianist

Many observers are hard pressed to recall seeing a female at the keys.

Gabriella Guerrero pre-med major

Atypical: Gabriella Guerrero is the rare young woman who practices on the GC piano. And in another twist, she often uses sheet music—something the men rarely do. 

Weeks of stakeouts in the lounge finally yielded a sighting of senior pre-med student Gabriella Guerrero, who started playing piano as a child in her native Ecuador.

The classical music aficionado has no idea why more women don’t sit down at the GC instrument, but she cites a number of reasons for her taking advantage of the opportunity, among them a chance to release “any emotions and stress.” She also references scientific research that playing an instrument can help boost creativity and problem-solving skills.

“I try to keep the music in my life because I know it’s beneficial,” she says. “I play as much as I can. It keeps me sharp for my classes.”

The people’s piano

Ruth Hamilton, executive director of GC and the woman behind the piano, confirmed that the current instrument is the original one purchased for the space in 1997: a Japanese-made Kawai. She thought it would add something to the atmosphere and give students a positive outlet.  When she first brought up the idea all those years ago, someone in the School of Music suggested locking away the piano daily at an appointed time to prevent the kind of overuse that requires frequent repairs.

“Are you crazy?” she remembers asking. “It’s going to be left there for the students to play. If we need to fix it every two weeks, we’ll fix it.”

And on that promise, she has made good. Broken pedals and loose keys are repaired as often as needed, sometimes monthly, and tuning for sound quality takes place once per quarter. The bench seat is replaced every year or two as its legs get shaky.

And a custodial worker reportedly caresses the piano daily with a soft cloth.   ♦


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