What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear “100 kids with pianos?” For me it’s The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, the 1953 live-action Dr. Seuss musical about a nefarious piano teacher who dragoons 500 young boys into manning an enormous instrument of his own design—a massive contraption with one long keyboard snaking through the curves of an Expressionistic soda fountain. Pianos on Parade comes in about 400 kids shy of Dr. Terwilliker’s haul (and eleven pianos too many—the weekend concert will feature 12 grands set up on the stage of the University Theatre). But hey, it’s still a pretty good start!
“Some people call concerts like these ‘monster concerts,’” says Dr. Steven Hesla, senior professor in piano at the University of Montana, “Which is sort of a cheap description of what is really an orchestral ensemble, pianistically speaking. It’s a neat sound, and the kids have worked hard and they’re geared up to go. We’ve had seven rehearsals on Sunday afternoons since October, and we’ve got two more coming up this weekend before the two shows. We’re ready to go.”
Their ranks are drawn from Missoula and surrounding communities, and these kids—all 100 of them, plus another few dozen adults—have been practicing diligently since fall. Their older counterparts are mostly non-professional adult players, though some of the groups will have their share of ringers. Hesla himself is part of a 16-strong ensemble performing Rossini’s Barber of Seville, a fun and familiar tune for any kid who’s ever seen the Looney Toons version with Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd.
Also among the ringers, of course, are Del Parkinson and Jeffrey Shumway. Parkinson and Shumway make up the American Piano Duo, half of the American Piano Quartet, a Utah-based group that Hesla describes as the only quartet of its kind to tour professionally.
“The Quartet can’t always tour together and sometimes situations are more conducive to having a duo,” says the professor. “So this is the American Piano Duo. They’re going to conduct some of these kids’ groups. We’ve got groups from first grade to fourth grade, fourth through sixth grade, and then we’ve got an overlap of sixth through ninth, and then another overlap of ninth through twelfth. So there’s four groups of kids, playing in groups of 24 or 36. All pianos, no orchestra. Except for a couple of piccolos coming in to help with ‘The Stars and Stripes Forever.’”
It’s a practical, and altruistic, application of what the kids have learned on piano, says Hesla, because half the proceeds for the concert will go to benefit the Joseph Residence Center, a family shelter that has been operating under the auspices of the Poverello Center since 1992. The Center provides housing and services to families in transition. According to Hesla, the kids’ enjoyment of the concert isn’t contingent on their understanding of the organization, but it’s salutary for them to know they’re doing something good. “It’s fun for them, first of all,” Hesla says. “They don’t have to know that they’re doing a benefit concert, but we try to drive home the point that they’re using their talent—already at age six—to help someone else who’s age six who may not have a roof over his head. They can think in terms of how they can use their skills to make contributions in this life. We just think it’s more important than having them go out and sell grapefruit.
“Nothing against selling grapefruit, you know,” Hesla adds. “But this is them getting to do what they do and like doing. We are asking them to find 10 people to buy tickets—grandpa and grandma and neighbors and teachers and friends. It helps to get the word out that it’s happening, but it’s good for them to do that, too.”
“The posters around town read ‘2 p.m.—7:30 p.m.,’ where they should say ‘2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.,” Hesla explains. “It was announced on the radio last week that there will be a marathon recital from 2 until 7:30, which I think is more a deterrent to people coming than anything else.”
Pianos on Parade will be held Saturday, Feb. 2 at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. in the UM University Theatre. Proceeds will be split between the UM Music Scholarship Endowment Fund and the Joseph Residence. Tickets are $12/adults, $8/students and seniors.