Barbara Lynne Norman smiles with joy as Elise Boulanger plays the keys of a 120-year-old piano on Nanaimo’s Commercial Street. (Cole Schisler photo)

120-year-old piano brings the joy of music to Nanaimo’s Commercial Street

‘Joy’ was the parlour piano of the original Wellington Hotel during the late 1890s

Outside the Wild Woman Medicine Show, a metaphysical shop on Commercial Street, sits a 120-year-old piano named Joy.

Joy was the parlour piano of the original Wellington Hotel during the late 1890s, and is believed to be one of the earliest pianos in Nanaimo. It has only 77 keys – down from the standard 88 keys – that are made from ebony and ivory.

After the Second World War, the piano was removed from the parlour into storage and completely forgotten about. When it came time for the Wellington to be demolished, the piano was taken from storage and placed in an auction house, purchased by a family, and passed down from parents to children. When it was time to pass the piano down to the grandchildren, the family no longer wanted it. That’s when Barbara Lynne Norman, music historian and director of Musical Journey, met Joy.

“Joy found me,” Norman said. “I already have pianos in my possession, but this lovely advert came up on Nanaimo Buy and Sell, and the piano itself, by visual presentation, intrigued me.”

Norman, who works at the Wild Woman Medicine Show, brought the piano to the store immediately after buying it. She moves it in and out of the store every day for people to play it on the street, saying her goal was to bring some life and energy to downtown through music.

“She was not named Joy [at first]. This is something I learned subsequently,” Norman said. “Within the first four months, I had two shamen visiting, one from Italy, and a second from Port Orchard, Wash. … and they both told me her name was Joy. This was interesting, because on my personal bio I wrote five years ago that I was coming to Vancouver Island to find joy.”

While the century-old piano was not the “joy” that Norman was expecting, she’s grateful to have given the piano a new home. In the months it has been outside the Wild Woman Medicine Show, countless players have stopped to fill the street with the sound of her keys.

“I adore small children touching piano keys for the very first time … Nanaimo has a wealth of amazing musicians, some of them stop by and just tinkle the ivory, some of them sit down and play a song or two,” Norman said. “Probably the most heartfelt for me is some of our most marginalized people, who we tend not to support well, that had a past that did involve music before their life changed. Some of them, when they sit down, they have a moment that is truly remarkable.”

Until last month, the piano was moved in and out of the store daily on its original metal casters – a difficult task considering the instrument’s weight of 800 pounds. One of Norman’s customers is a contractor, who told her she was “crazy” to be moving the piano around so much, and built a self-supporting steel frame dolly system with wheels.

With this new system, the piano can be included in street music performances. Nanaimo musician Elise Boulanger was the first to suggest the idea of Joy being played in a performance. Boulanger was trained in classical vocal performance at the Victoria Conservatory of Music. She also plays the piano and ukelele in her performances. Boulanger’s songs deal largely with climate change, and hopes to inspire action through her music. Her work can be found on her artist page: facebook.com/eliseboulangermusic.

At the final Commercial Street Night Market of the summer, Norman and Boulanger rolled the piano up to Diana Krall Plaza, and Boulanger performed original music with Joy. Their intention was to bring the community together in a public space to enjoy music.

“Everyone resonates with the sound of pianos,” Boulanger said. “I hope that more people will play her, know about her, and know her story. I just want more people to play her, and be joyful, too.”

Norman is continuing to look for historical musical artifacts from Nanaimo to preserve. She encouraged anyone with old sheet music, photographs, documentation, or instruments to contact her at barbaralynne@musical-journey.ca.

editor@ladysmithchronicle.com

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