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A piano that wants you to succeed: At the Wellness Center, the Steinway brings joy to many

Sophomore Catherine McMillan wasn’t sure if she liked playing the piano anymore. Was she truly passionate about playing the piano, or was this just something that others expected of her? Her mother was a piano teacher, and she had been playing since pre-school. But McMillan’s pieces didn’t sound the way she wanted them to, and she thought that maybe her best piano-playing days were behind her. 

On one Friday this September, McMillan walked out of her last class of the week and decided on a whim to go play the piano at the Wellness Center. She sat down at the piano and began to improvise. As sunlight streamed in from the floor-to-ceiling windows, the voice in her head that usually told her she wasn’t playing well enough disappeared into the beautiful music. McMillan felt as if she was almost hovering above the space. 

“That was what made me believe in music again, that this is formative to my identity and I want to keep going,” she said.

The piano is a Steinway Spirio, a player piano that can be connected to an iPad and play songs on its own. Concert pianist performances are recorded on Steinway and Sons pianos originally, so the company is able to provide a library by famous artists including Lang Lang and Billy Joel that one can select from to hear live from the Spirio. 

“There are many layers and levels of sound and sound potential [to a Steinway]...it allows you to sit at the piano and forget everything else,” said Keith Pendercraft, owner of Hopper Piano, the store that sold the Spirio to the Wellness Center. 

McMillan especially appreciates the action of the piano, a term for how light of a touch will still produce a sound from the piano. 

“On other pianos, it’s a lot harder to touch...With that piano, it’s like it wants me to succeed, it wants me to play it,” she said. 

***

When the Wellness Center opened two years ago, it could only afford to rent a piano. Tom Szigethy, associate dean of students and director of DuWell, knew they needed to find a donor if they wanted a piano permanently, so he contacted the Office of University Development, which works with alumni who want to donate to Duke. Finding a donor often requires making calls to alumni across the country, but the donation in this case was made possible by someone who worked less than 100 feet from the piano. 

Rosie Canizares, a physical therapist who works in the Wellness Center, had heard from her friend Phillip Duhart, who works at the Office of University Development, that the Wellness Center needed a donor for the piano. Rosie’s father Roberto Canizares, a general practice specialist at Mary Washington Hospital in Virginia, had made large donations to his local church and various charities. Rosie thought that he might be willing to donate the money for the piano as a way to honor her mother Teresita Canizares, who had passed away of lung cancer in 2008. 

She had played piano for a few years as a child, and always regretted that she stopped playing. She made her three children—Florinda, Arthur and Rosie—take piano lessons starting from kindergarten, and they would perform at holiday parties and local recitals. 

All three Canizares children spoke of the time Florinda and Arthur entered the Kiwanis Club talent show as elementary schoolers. They sat next to each other on the piano bench with their feet barely touching the ground and played a piano duet. Florinda and Arthur won the grand prize, and were put on the front page of the Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star like miniature Donny and Marie Osmond siblings. 

“It was one of my mom’s shining moments...I think it made her feel that she had really made it in America,” Florinda said. 

Rosie also thought the piano would be a good way to honor her mother because the piano would improve student wellness, and her mother had spent her life taking care of others. 

Teresita met Roberto when they were both medical students in the Philippines, and they immigrated to the United States for residency together. She laughed so often that her professor in residency called her “Dr. Giggle.” After residency, she worked part-time as an obstetrician-gynecologist for the public health clinic in Fredericksburg. But Roberto remembers that her patients would call her about medical problems after her regular hours so much that she was essentially working full-time. 

“My dad still goes by her grave site every day,” Arthur said. “[He’ll do] anything to honor my mom.” 

So when Rosie asked her father if he could donate the money for the piano, he quickly agreed, giving the University the funds needed for the purchase and upkeep of the piano. 

"I'm pretty sure I just walk by with a goofy grin when people are playing it," Rosie said. "It just makes me think of my mom."

Although Rosie, Florinda and Arthur don’t play regularly anymore, the piano has had a lasting impact on Florinda’s life in particular. 

When Florinda was in high school, her piano teacher organized a piano recital for all her students. Florinda sat next to another piano student, Walter Chun. They were the last two people to perform, and passed a program back and forth with notes about how nervous they were. This was in the summer of 1986, and that fall, Walter asked Florinda to the homecoming dance. They’ve now been married for 23 years. 

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On Oct. 18, the 33rd anniversary of the day Walter and Florinda went to the homecoming dance, they drove from their home in Richmond, Va. with their three kids to the Wellness Center, which was holding an event to thank the Canizares family for the donation. There, Florinda gave a speech about her mom and what the piano meant to her family.

“When I think about my mom, she was always moving, busy helping. One of the few times I think she would allow herself to sit and just be is when we were playing the piano,” she said.

Szigethy showed the Canizares family a newly installed plaque with the message, “In loving memory of Dr. Teresita Canizares...May your fleeting beauty be forever in our hearts,” and an engraving of a butterfly. 

***

People in the Duke community have found that the piano in the Wellness Center allows them to just be. 

“The music, it just changes the atmosphere in the building,” Szigethy said. “It doesn’t feel like ‘Get the work done’ and it’s more like, ‘We can get the work done, but we can also enjoy life in the process’.”

In addition to the beautiful music that people get to hear, one benefit of the piano is that playing the piano provides a sense of accomplishment.

“In the kind of work I do, 95% of the time things may not work or go in the opposite direction of your hypothesis and you don’t have that positive correlation of effort and outcome… But with piano, you can actually have that progress,” said Rui Xi, a Ph.D. student in the biomedical engineering department who researches treatments for lung cancer.

Xi’s music professor pointed out to her that when she starts to learn a piece, it’s easy to tell that she’s not confident in her piano playing because she practices with her back hunched. But as she masters a piece, her body straightens. 

“Towards the end, actually, it makes me feel...” she said, pausing for a second, “pretty. It makes me feel I’m pretty while I’m playing it.”

Szigethy placed a journal next to the piano for students to write thank-you notes to the Canizares family. The journal was placed on Oct. 14, and already twenty pages had been filled as of November 13.

“I never got to play a piano like this at home, and there’s something about this space that makes it an amazing spot to reflect and relax,” wrote one student. 

“This is my safe spot on campus,” wrote another player. 

***

A common practice among pianists is to test how a piano “sings.” Pianists will pull out their phones to time how long a sound will ring when you press a key on the piano. 

The piano at the wellness center sings for nine seconds and 11 milliseconds. 

But in its impact on the Duke community, the piano sings for far longer. 

Editor's Note: McMillan is a columnist for The Chronicle.

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