Sitting at a Brambach baby grand piano at the Myakka City United Methodist Church, Marilyn Coker had launched into the first song of M. Isabelle Ritter's "Seven Last Words" as an audience of two people sat in metal chairs while listening intently.
Coker, 85, might as well have been playing with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra behind her as she became lost in the music, her fingers gliding across the keys and her head gently moving forward on certain notes for emphasis.
Surrounding Coker on the floor were various toys, including a stuffed Plush rabbit, a plastic horse on wheels and a kitchen set. Above the piano were some cabinets, the doors of which mysteriously swayed to the beat of the music, revealing an inordinate amount of clutter.
It was a small storage room that best could be described as a closet.
For Coker, though, it was a small slice of heaven.
The audience was Judy and Ray Shannon, owners of Shannon Funeral Homes of Bradenton. While the Shannons' main home is in downtown Bradenton, they also own a ranch in Myakka City, which they bought on Juel Gill Road in 2006. But even before 2006, they had developed a connection to the community through their friends and relatives who lived there.
The Shannons are familiar with Coker and her role with the Myakka City Historical Society, which for the past 29 years has worked to restore the Myakka City Historic School House. That restoration is expected to come to fruition by the end of this year and the result will be a town center, museum and library for the community.
One of the rooms of the schoolhouse is the old auditorium, which has its stage still intact. It will be the focus of community gatherings and has been equipped with a very modern sound system and speakers.
What the room didn't have, until now, was a piano.
Ray Shannon was pretty much born into the funeral business as his grandfather Rowland Shannon started Shannon Funeral Homes on 14th Street in Bradenton in 1928 and his father, Joseph, later took over, eventually being followed by Ray. Ray and Judy are still involved in the business, but their advancing age signals retirement might be in the not-too-distant future.
Six months ago, the Shannons closed one of their funeral homes, the Westview Chapel at 5610 Manatee Ave. W., Bradenton. When the Westview Chapel opened in 1973, Joseph Shannon bought a Brambach baby grand piano. Ray Shannon remembers the many times his mother, Eugenia, brought comfort to families by playing that piano during services.
With the Westview Chapel scheduled for destruction, the Shannons couldn't stand the thought of the piano being flattened with the building. They asked around and found that the market for a baby grand piano was very limited.
Then they thought about the schoolhouse.
"There is no market anymore because everyone has electronic keyboards, and it's all high tech," Judy Shannon said. "But we didn't want to see the piano go down with the building. That would have been horrible."
They asked Coker if the Myakka City Historical Society needed a piano.
It was music to her ears.
"Every (town center) needs to have a piano," Coker said. "And this piano was built for a larger space. This has a huge sound."
The piano was shipped to the Myakka City United Methodist Church for storage until the new air conditioning system can be installed at the schoolhouse. The air conditioning system is the final major piece of the restoration project. While the church only had a tiny room for storage, it is an air conditioned room. Only a few pieces of the piano had to be disassembled before workers tilted it through a narrow door.
When Coker finished playing the cantata for the Shannons, they gave her an ovation before heading back to the ranch. Once they were out the door, Coker noted that she was playing the baby grand very lightly, because if she had played at a normal volume, she would have blown them out of the room.
Coker, who started piano lessons at age 11, has played on Sundays at the church since 1967.
"That's my passion — music," she said, sitting on the piano's bench.
She had selected both Christmas and Easter music to play after the schoolhouse's opening, depending on whether the building opens late this year or early next year.
Now she has a piano on which to perform.
After the air conditioning system is complete at the school, the piano will be moved and then will be needed to be tuned. Coker said that although the piano was tilted to go into the store room, only a few notes were off a little.
She said the piano itself was an expensive purchase back in 1973, estimating more than $5,000.
Once moved, she said, it will take her some time to get used to the keys. She usually plays on upright pianos.
"Every piano has a different touch," she said. "This one you have to push a bit harder."
That's OK, though, because she will get plenty of practice. If it's not "Seven Last Words," it might be "This Old Man." with lots of kids sitting on the floor of the auditorium.