Piano in family since 1939

The past month I’ve been going through stacks of cardboard boxes bursting with old photos, sheet music, letters, clothing and other paraphernalia stored in our garage. Many containers hadn’t been cracked open since we moved from Port Alberni to Nanaimo 14 years ago. One box containing correspondence belonging to my parents and written in the 1930’s I found to be of significant interest, a link I felt to be my prelude connection to the world of music. 

Photo: Our Grandchildren Nathan and Matthew play a duet on the Mason & Risch Grand Piano that my parents purchased in the summer of 1939.

Three letters written in June and July of 1939 were related to a Mason & Risch Grand piano that my parents had purchased in Vancouver and were in the process of having shipped to Port Alberni. This was the piano I would ultimately learn to play on. In 1939 I was a year old. The Mason & Risch piano company of Toronto dates back to the late 1800’s. They were among the earliest piano makers in this country and grew to become a giant of the Canadian piano industry, producing more pianos than any other company. In supporting young Canadian musicians my wife Pat won the company's national scholarship in 1960/61 which enabled her to study at the Royal Conservatory of Music of Toronto.

The first typewritten letter addressed to my father was dated July 20th, 1939 and signed by the manager of the Vancouver branch office of Mason & Risch. It indicated the Grand piano purchase had left their hands in “lovely condition”, and hoped that it would reach Port Alberni “without mishap.”

It appears from references in the correspondence that my father was apprehensive about assembling the piano when it arrived and wondered if someone from the Vancouver store could be sent over to do the job. The manager acknowledged that he had “made enquiry of our local Dray Company, who handle all our Grands, what it would cost to send their foreman over to Port Alberni to supervise the work to ensure safe installation. The cost of such a trip seems almost prohibitive. The round trip fare would be $6.55, the wages of a man for two days $10.00, and estimated for meals and bed $6.50, a total of, approximately, $23.00.” The reference to a “Dray Company” I found fascinating – harkening back to a time when freight was moved aboard horse-drawn wagons.
The piano arrived by railway express at the Esquimalt & Nanaimo Railway in Port Alberni the first week of August in 1938. A second letter arrived at the same time explaining in great detail how the piano should be assembled. The “draymen who transport the piano to your home from the Port Alberni railway express warehouse should fasten the Grand on their skid to take it to your living room, where the setting up takes place. Obviously it cannot be set up on its legs outside the house. Inside the Grand is to be lifted bodily by five husky men so as to not put any strain on the legs until the Grand rests on the legs naturally. Let the men get themselves distributed around the Grand for the lifting of it.”

On and on for three-pages the instructions go, the piano company apologizing for repeating sections of the directive so many times, “but we have done our best, in everyday language, to make this clear to you, and it is really not as involved as it would appear, especially as you will see when you have the Grand before you. Please do not be scared over our prolonged description of how to do it.” 
In closing the letter writer states, “realizing your profession (my father was a medical doctor) it is possible that you would anticipate a major operation instead. The writer has enjoyed among his close personal friends several physicians and surgeons, and we feel quite confident that you can handle this situation satisfactory. We will await with considerable interest your letter after the Grand has been installed in your new home.”

The piano occupied a prominent position in the livingroom of our parent’s home for decades. Upon the passing of my mother Evelyn Miller, the piano was placed in my wife Pat’s piano studio after traveling with us when we moved to Nanaimo. Recently the Grand was transported back over the hump to Port Alberni to be used by our two grandchildren, Nathan and Matthew.

Loci ready to move

My blog of Dec 6th featured photos taken during an exploratory trip I made north to Woss Lake with members of the Western Vancouver Island Industrial Heritage Society. The trip was to assess the possibility of moving steam locomotive #112 from the Nimkish Valley to the Alberni Valley by highway on board a flat deck truck. Western Forest Products had offered the locomotive, situated in their Beaver Cove rail yard, to the Industrial Heritage Society. It was decided to go ahead with the move and backed with a donation of $10,000 from the BC Railroad Association, society members have been working weekends readying the steam locomotive for the move. Here are some photos taken recently by IHS member David Hooper.

The Nickel Bros Moving Company has been tasked with moving the steam locomotive to Port Alberni. The company is the largest house moving company in the Pacific Northwest, transporting everything from a castle built for Expo 86 to an entire two-story pub. The photos above show the locomotive being jacked up and blocked. 

Arrowsmith Big Band on mid-island tour

The 16-piece Arrowsmith Big Band will be making a 3-concert tour starting next week. The band is comprised of some of the foremost musicians on mid-Vancouver Island who have between them many years of professional experience playing jazz. There are also three talented students in the group, one from Kwalicum Secondary School and two who attend the music program at Vancouver Island University. The adult members hail from several communities on the Island and meet weekly in Parksville to rehearse.

The concerts will be a rare opportunity for jazz fans to hear the sound produced by the traditional big band instrumentation of four trumpets, four trombones, five saxophones accompanied by a rhythm section of piano, bass and drums. After more than 70 years the configuration continues to be a platform for training young jazz musicians in high school and university music programs world wide.

Some of the arrangements that will be heard during the tour will be Pete Coulman’s Yardbird Suite, Mark Markus’ Med. Basie Swing, John LaBarbera’s A Delicate Balance, Bill Holman’s Aura, Quincy Jones’ Quintessence, Gordon Goodwin’s Hunting Wabbits, Gary Urwin’s My Foolish Heart, Bob Brookmeyer’s Spirit Music, Rob McConnell’s Groovin’ High amongst others. 

Band members include Michael Irving, Dave Stewart, Greg Bush, Susie Craven (trumpets), Paul Nuez, Julian Telfer-Wan, Will Oxland, Jeff Agopsowicz (trombones), Claudio Fantinato, Caleb Boorboom, Dan Craven, Trevor Hooper, Rod Alsop (saxophones), Barry Miller (Piano), Marisha Devoin (bass), and Michael Wright (drums).


Thursday February 5 @ Georgia Strait Jazz Club, The Avalanche,  275 Eighth Street Courtenay.
Start time 7.30pm

Sunday February 8 @ Crofton Hotel, 1534 Joan Avenue, Crofton. 
Start time 2pm

Thursday February 12 @ ADSS theatre in Port Alberni - 4000 Roger Street.  Student groups at 7:00pm. Arrowsmith Big Band at 8:00pm. Admission by donation at door  - Proceeds from the concert are in support of a music scholarship awarded annually by the Port Alberni Orchestra & Chorus Society to an ADSS music student.