Ted Rehl breaks a promise to himself whenever he sits on the piano bench behind the 1948 vintage Steinway piano.
Almost every day, even though the red seats in the Pilgrim Hall Theater at Plymouth Harbor are empty, he sits at the piano bench. He places his fingers over the familiar keys and warms up with scales. Then, he progresses to the works of the classical composers such as Frederic Chopin, Selim Palmgren and Claude Debussy.
His fingers don’t move with the dexterity that they once did. But that doesn’t matter to Rehl. He persists almost every day in anticipation of April 1, the day that his friends and neighbors will fill the theater to hear his performance, “To Plymouth Harbor With Love.”
As his fingers strike the black-and-white keys, he breaks the promise that he made nearly 19 years ago: to never play the piano again.
Rehl stood up and took a bow at the end of his last performance. His next action was symbolic: He folded the cover over the keys before he left the stage.
The audience gave him a standing ovation. It was 1992, and they knew that Rehl was retiring from his career as a concert pianist and chair of the piano department at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis. But only his family and a few colleagues knew that he pulled the cover over the keys because he planned to retire not only from his career but from playing the piano entirely.
“He closed up the piano and decided he wasn’t going to touch it again,” said Rehl’s wife, Fran.
“I got rid of my piano and every bit of sheet music,” Rehl said. “Literally, rooms of music.”
Many of Rehl’s colleagues questioned his decision. A few even wondered whether he had ever truly loved his career. Nearly 19 years later, Rehl, 80, is still emphatic that he loved his career as a musician. But he compared himself to an athlete retiring from his sport — and ending the hours of daily training that went along with it.
He had been training since he was 5, when he began picking out Sunday school hymns by ear on his family’s piano. He kept training when he attended the prestigious Conservatory of Music at Oberlin College, in Ohio, where he met Fran, a cello major, when she needed an accompanist. The couple went on to raise two children, Richard and Rebecca, who inherited their musical skills. During Rehl’s career, his training took two or three hours a day in addition to performance and teaching time. He kept training even after Fran Rehl burned out of being a professional musician and pursued, instead, a career in real estate.
Walking away from the piano didn’t feel sad or even bittersweet, Rehl said. It felt wonderful.
“It was like starting a new life,” he said.
In 1992, the Rehls moved to Longboat Key, and Rehl traded piano keys for a computer keyboard. He enjoyed new hobbies, such as computer games, along with bridge, travel and volunteer work as the head cashier at Mote Marine Aquarium. In 2006, the Rehls moved to Plymouth Harbor, where neighbors occasionally asked Rehl to perform. He always declined.
He had made a promise to himself.
But last April, the Rehls attended a performance in Pilgrim Hall and noticed that a grand piano would be a better fit for the auditorium.
“You can have a piano that sounds good in your living room, but it doesn’t project what the musician is trying to project artistically,” Fran Rehl said.
They tried to get their neighbors interested in buying a grand piano. They called about a Steinway piano that was advertised in the Longboat Observer. But it had already sold. They visited a piano store in Clearwater, where they saw brand-new Steinway grand pianos. The salesman asked Rehl if he wanted to test out the piano.
Soon, the Rehls found that drumming up interest in a $45,000-to-$50,000 purchase was difficult in a community of mostly non-musicians. Then, in December, Fran Rehl did a Google search for a Steinway grand piano in Sarasota. The results led the couple to Nick’s Piano Showroom, in Venice, where a 1948 vintage Steinway grand piano was available at a bargain price as part of an estate sale. The salesman gave a demonstration. The piano’s sounds were varied and hit everything from the fullest to softest sounds.
Rehl listened, hypnotized by the piano’s sound. The salesman asked Rehl if he wanted to test it. He didn’t say a word.
Then, he did something that shocked his wife — he sat down on the piano bench.
And, then, he began to play.
Rehl was waiting Dec. 27 — one week after he first saw the piano — when it arrived at Plymouth Harbor. Earlier that week, he had approached Plymouth Harbor CEO Harry Hobson and worked out a deal to donate the money for the community to purchase the piano so that other artists could give performances on it.
Rehl decided to start practicing again. He wasn’t sure at first if he could get back in shape to perform. But, soon, he realized that, although his fingers weren’t as agile as he used to be, his skill was still there. Playing the piano was natural for him.
Finally, by mid-February, he agreed to give a performance.
Because Fran Rehl found the piano, Rehl let his wife pick out the pieces for the program. She chose 11 short pieces composed between 1850 and 1950.
Just last week, Fran Rehl listened to her husband’s entire program. His performance has changed over the years. He was always a perfectionist. But his style has become less technical — and more emotional.
“I think it’s something that comes with maturity,” she said. “He’s playing with more feeling and more musicality than I’ve ever heard him play.”
Rehl won’t pull the cover over the keyboard at the end of his upcoming performance, although he hasn’t decided whether he will continue playing the piano.
But, this time, Rehl isn’t making any promises to himself.
“Who knows?” he said. “I think I can probably be persuaded.”
Ted Rehl’s program consists of short pieces composed between 1850 and 1950. It begins with two early works by Claude Debussy and continues with two Spanish pieces inspired by the wind, followed by a piece by Norwegian composer Christian Sinding. The program continues with three pieces by Frederic Chopin, followed by “May Night” by Selim Palmgren and the Rachmaninoff prelude. The final piece is Chopin’s Ballade in A flat major, Opus 47.
Contact Robin Hartill at [email protected]