A reflection on the sweet surprise that cemented a lifetime of music between an old instrument and an orchestra-less conductor.
By Dana Zimbric
Piano saved my life. Well, one specific piano saved my life… her name is Hershey.
First, her backstory: Hershey was born in Holland, Michigan around 1926, created by piano maker Bush & Lane. She is a grand piano made of beautiful wood, and has been rebuilt at least once since her birth.
She came into my life in 1990, when I was a twelve-year-old aspiring musician. My parents purchased her from The Piano Shop in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The lifesaving began almost immediately.
I was a sensitive and emotional pre-teen – struggling with normal stresses of this tough age, difficult friendships, crushes, and complicated adjustments. But when I sat down to play this special piano, my mind could clear. My brain could sort through complicated issues. My emotions could be communicated. My teenage angst could be freed.
I played this piano throughout my middle and high school years, always going back to her for an understanding friend. A creative outlet. A beautiful sound that could express what I was unable to say in words.
I left her when I went to college. She stayed in my parents’ house silently waiting as I moved to Wisconsin, and then eventually to San Diego, California. Life went on. I began conducting. I got married. I had two daughters. I was busy juggling it all. A career, a family, a very full life. Somehow, over two decades passed.
Late in the summer of 2019 it was determined that the piano would be moved from my parents’ house in Michigan to my house in San Diego. It was a practical decision. My two daughters were both learning piano and needed a better instrument on which to practice. It made sense to move the instrument that was quietly gathering dust.
So, Hershey entered my life again. She was transported via truck, in pieces, across the country. The longest journey of her existence, as best we know. Two long weeks on a temperature-controlled semi, slowly riding from point to point. I wonder how she felt leaving the Midwest after nearly 100 years.
Upon her arrival, everything had been arranged. Furniture moved and space cleared in our small but average-size-for-California home. The old upright piano was given to a friend. The piano movers gingerly lifted her over the threshold and put her pieces back together. At the time I did not understand how fitting that was. Eagerly I sat down and played her for the first time in years.
Immediately I knew something was wrong. An ‘A’ in the middle register had a horrible twangy tone. Oh, no. Broken string? Cracked soundboard? Something far worse? I called the piano technician. This was an emergency.
We needed to pull her apart again to find the problem. The keyboard came out, the lid lifted high. This was open heart surgery. As the piano tuner searched, I too studied the insides in desperation. And then I saw the cause. I reached into her exposed cavity, down between the strings, and lifted out a small item wrapped in pink foil. It was a Hershey’s Kiss.
I can’t for the life of me imagine where this candy came from. A long-ago Valentine’s Day sweet or a decades-old Easter basket treat from my youth? How long had this chocolate been waiting there to be found; how long had this piano been waiting to give a kiss?
Hershey recovered from her chocolate removal procedure quickly, and soon my daughters were playing the piano I had enjoyed for so many years as a young person. I started playing more, too, when I had the time.
Things changed seemingly overnight in March 2020. My last live orchestra concert was on March 6, 2020. The pandemic shutdown canceled every performance in my calendar, and all future ones, too. It has been one year since I have stood in front of an orchestra or addressed an audience from the stage. There have been many dark days filled with worry, fear, anxiety, and stress. As a professional orchestra conductor, this past year of non-concerts has been difficult. Mentally draining to cancel concert after concert, heartbreak after heartbreak. A full year of not physically making music with colleagues. A full year of “who am I…?”
And yet… my fingers have once again reached for the instrument that has carried me through before. Hershey and I have explored music by Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Joplin, Beach, and so many others. She has become my tiny orchestra. We have spent hours reconnecting brain to fingers and fingers to brain.
Hershey has heard me angry, sad, depressed, joyful, and hopeful. She has once again given me an outlet to express the things I cannot say. She has helped me put my pieces back together. She has always done this for me—from teen angst to pandemic anxiety.
Today Hershey and I share our music with thousands of students across San Diego County. We zoom into their classrooms and share our music. We share our story – her story. And she touches their hearts, too. Giving voice to their feelings, giving them the gift of music. And I see my eldest daughter, nearly a teen herself, reaching for Hershey. Playing her feelings. Hershey’s lifesaving musical legacy continues.
I wonder if the original piano makers– the craftsmen who shaped wood, strings, and metal– could have imagined the lives their work would save. Turns out Bush & Lane, the makers of Hershey, closed down in 1930 during the Great Depression, after making some 60,000 instruments. Hershey had experienced tough times long before COVID-19.
And still this chocolatey-brown instrument sits patiently awaiting the next call for help — the musical healer who saves broken hearts.
Dana Zimbric is a professional orchestra conductor living in San Diego with her husband and two daughters. Since 2003 she has served as the Artistic Director and Conductor for Classics 4 Kids, a 501c3 non-profit organization that provides music education concerts and experiences to thousands of children in San Diego.