SELMA – When vocal music assistant Stephanie Assisi walked into Selma High’s choir room in the first days of school, she was surprised to see their piano’s foot pedals falling off and its strings needing replacing.
The piano had been at Selma High since the school was built more than five decades ago and since then, graduating seniors started a tradition of carving their names in it.
Hoping to salvage the well-loved instrument, a piano technician was called in, but even their verdict was hard to hear.
“The piano technician said it wasn’t really fixable without pouring thousands of dollars into it,” Assisi said.
Choir teacher Gina Peckfelder is on leave just now but commented on how nostalgic the choir students are about the original piano.
“The old one is somewhat an icon in the choral classroom. Many alumni have carved their names into it. Although the instrument was vandalized in this way and past directors should not have allowed this, it has become a relic in the choir room.”
Long-term substitute Mark Lanford said the missing pedals made it hard for Assisi to sustain notes as she played and was starting to cause her physical pain since she couldn’t lift her hands as pianists typically do when they play.
“The piano was a mess,” Lanford said. “The pedals are what makes the tones hold so you can lift your hands off the keys. Her arms were starting to ache and cramp up.”
The teachers went into action and Lanford credits Assisi for her persistence in writing letters to Selma Unified officials explaining the piano’s poor state.
In the meantime, they used a small electronic keyboard to rehearse songs in class, but with their winter performances coming up and already festivals underway, the keyboard’s little sound couldn’t match their big goals.
“It’s hard to support a big group on a keyboard,” Assisi said. “We play some pretty challenging festival pieces and the keyboard really couldn’t accommodate some of those.”
Lanford said it would cost about $50,000 to rehab the piano and it would be less expensive to simply buy a new one.
“This choir program has a long history of excellence. Previous directors have left a legacy of a good choral work, so we felt the kids and the program deserved to have a fine instrument.”
Assisi credits Assistant Superintendents Davinder Sidhu and Larry Teixeira for allocating the funding for a new piano. They were able to trade in the original one and received a $3,000 discount for that model. In the end, a new Kawai Baby Grand was acquired for an estimated $8,000.
The shiny new black model was delivered to Selma High’s choir classroom Oct. 25 and the original one was taken to California Keyboards in Bakersfield. Ed Tomlinson will restring and refurbish the old instrument.
“He’s going to completely refinish it and give it new life,” Assisi said. “I know some of the students shed a tear or two when they saw it go. But we’ll be making even better memories with this new instrument so it’s a positive move for the choir.”
The Chamber Singers were practicing “Hotta Chocolatta” on Oct. 30 and Assisi said she can already hear an improvement in all the choirs’ singing.
“[Assisi] can be more artistic and that influences how the kids sing. The piano’s tone is very even and smooth and it influences the way they sound. Now, she can play with power and with finesse. The kids hear that and it helps them artistically.”
The choir students say they’re grateful for the new piano since arts programs aren’t always in the limelight.
“It’s great to know we have someone who obviously cares about choir,” junior Sadahri Wren said. “The arts are so unappreciated nowadays, but it’s literally part of you. There’s no other feeling like this.”
Junior Anysah Galvan was there when the new piano was brought in. She recalls seeing the old brown Steinway when she first joined in Selma High’s choir as a freshman.
“It looked really old and really used. I asked why there were so many names and scribbles and carvings on the piano,” she said. “That’s when all the upperclassmen said it was tradition to carve their names in it. I didn’t realize when I came how many memories it had and how much that piano meant to people.”
Maximino Sanchez, a senior, said he’s unsure of who started that tradition and why, but it stuck. Since he wasn’t sure if he’d be in choir until his senior year, he added his name underneath the lid during his freshman year.
“It’s a memory I’m not going to forget ever.”
Junior Steven Hayes said that once he heard they’d be getting a new piano, he added his initials to the piano even though he wasn’t a senior yet.
“I felt like I always already part of the choir family and I thought, before they take it away, I wanted to be part of this experience.”
Galvan said she waited to put her name on it “since that’s the tradition.”
This is only one tradition the choirs have, though. Wren said they usually also take a retreat trip and sing “Silent Night” and “Light a Candle” for their winter concert.
“We sing that with all the choirs, so it’s like a huge family thing,” Wren said. “We also light a candle while we’re singing so it’s a beautiful.”
This year, their winter concert is 7 p.m. Dec. 6 at Selma’s First Baptist Church, 2025 Grant St.
As they rehearse for that and other performances, they can already hear the difference the new piano is making.
“We all sound like one and that’s the goal,” Galvan said. “We spend all this time together and we’re trying to make that sound. We do this together.”
“When you get up there, especially if you’re one of the soloists, it’s a huge thing to have that confidence,” Sanchez said of performing. “It gives you a huge boost to see there’s a huge group who wants to be part of everything you’re doing,” he said of their unity.
However, they won’t forget the Steinway that was.
“It was sad, but I knew this was a new step that was needed,” Galvan said. “Just because they took out that old piano doesn’t mean they took all our memories.”
Now, they’ll be creating new traditions and new memories with this new piano. They just haven’t decided what those will be yet. Perhaps they’ll touch the piano when they leave for the day or sign a poster at the end of the school year.
“We’ll find something. It’ll come,” Galvan said.
“But no carvings on that one,” Hayes said.