The Keys to Success

He had a knack for knowing a good instrument when he saw one.

- Posted on Feb 26, 2014

Bobby Simma sits at a piano with several copies of sheet music

Perkins Tryon Elementary had 500 students and as principal I was responsible for all of them. One second grader, I’ll call her Lettie, was missing a birth certificate. I’d made dozens of pleas to the Division of Vital Records, but we still didn’t have the supporting documents.

“Lettie’s teacher is also concerned she can’t see the board,” my secretary told me after yet another frustrating phone call. How would we ever know what kind of student she could be if she was struggling to see? I drove out to Lettie’s address to talk to her parents.

This wasn’t the kind of work I’d envisioned doing. In fact, I’d always thought I’d wind up working with pianos. I didn’t have a desire to perform professionally–much as I loved playing at home with the family, and at retirement homes with my wife, Dayna.

What I really wanted to do was recycle pianos. With the help of some well-financed organization, I imagined, I could get all the good pianos out there gathering dust into churches, schools, public spaces–places where people would really appreciate them.

I wished I could start with a replacement for the tired old spinet piano I played at school.

“So you want to be a piano rescuer,” Dayna always joked.

I inherited my love of the piano from my mother, who had bought her first at 10 years old from money she earned raising pigs. When I was a boy, that same old Cable Wellington Upright sat in the only place we had room for it–my bedroom.

Sometimes when I had trouble falling asleep I’d play a key softly to soothe me. My own three children learned to play too. We were a musical family, and I wished I could share that kind of fun with everyone.

If only we had a better piano at the school, I thought as I parked by the trailer where Lettie lived. But there were things Lettie needed more than a piano–like a birth certificate and probably glasses.

It was my job to get the kids what they needed. I’d leave it to the angels to take care of their musical influences.

I approached the trailer and knocked. Lettie’s father answered. “Well now, what do you want, Mister?” he asked.

I explained who I was. “I’d like to take Lettie to have her eyes checked,” I said. “The state insurance plan will pay for it.” He agreed to let me make an appointment. Soon Lettie’s teacher would see just how well she could do–I was sure.

My small victory with Lettie made me optimistic when I attended a school surplus auction days later. I picked up a couple of chairs, some adjustable-height tables, a pull-down wall map and...what was that?

There, in the corner, nearly covered by junk, was a piano. A Yamaha P22 Studio. Not a bad model. But how does it play? Even the best tuning couldn’t fix a bad piano. I had a knack for knowing which ones were beyond repair.

I put my hands on the keys and ran through “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.” Beautiful! No matter how it might look on the outside, this was one solid instrument inside. A quick call back to the school and I had permission to bid for it. I got it for $150!

The Monday after it was delivered, the kids filed into the auditorium for an assembly. They pointed at me behind the new piano, which I’d polished and asked my friend Larry to tune. I struck up the opening chords of the “Star-Spangled Banner” and looked out at the children’s faces.

Lettie was in the third row, wearing her new glasses with the bright pink frames. She’d improved a lot in school since she got them. Listening to the kids sing I couldn’t help but think how much potential they had.

There were a lot of badly made pianos in the world but there was no such thing as a badly made child.

At dinner, I told my family about “the unveiling.” That’s when my son-in-law introduced me to Craigslist, a site where people put up ads for buying and selling. Right away I spotted some good model pianos, both nearby and in the neighboring states of Kansas and Texas. I’d struck gold!

When I find a deal I drive to the piano to try it out myself. I make any small repairs the piano might need, clean it up the best I can, and Larry puts it in tune. Now Dayna calls me “The Piano Rescuer” for real.

You might say I got that job I’d imagined. Truth is, I’d had it all along. Bringing out the potential in a good piano isn’t so different from bringing out the potential in a child. And the angels are hard at work on their musical influences. I hear it in their voices every time I accompany them in the auditorium.


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