Historical grand piano donated to MHS Choral Department

Carlie Sack | Staff Writer

A grand piano, with an estimated value of $6,000, was donated to Mason City Schools Performing Arts Department on March 22. Mason residents Carolyn and John Gruber donated this piano in the name of their daughters, Ashley and Samantha, who attend Mason City Schools, but are not involved in the performing arts.The piano now has a home in the classroom of choir teachers Elaine Santos and Matthew Smith. Santos said this grand piano, built by William Knabe and Company in 1969, is used daily in order to encourage the choral maturity of her students.

“Mr. Smith and I play while [the students] are singing,” Santos said. “That piano supports the vocal development and growth of our students. …Every day it’s used.”

Carolyn Gruber said that the family decided to donate the grand piano because it was not currently being used in their home and, with the economic downturn, it would be difficult to sell.

“I thought it would be appreciated and what better place [to donate the piano] than where my daughters go to school?” Gruber said.

According to Gruber, the family decided to donate the piano to an educational setting because of the piano’s history: concert pianist Rata Present, great aunt of Gruber, previously owned and played the piano. Present was a famous pianist during the 1920s and 1930s, who performed throughout Europe and the United States.

“In her early years, she gave concerts in major cities of the US, as well as abroad: Italy, France and Spain,” Gruber said. “At the height of her career, [she left Europe and] returned home to Rochester, New York, where she taught private lessons.”

Gruber said the piano was passed down to her after Present’s death at age 92. Gruber said that even though this piano holds historical and sentimental value to her family, she is satisfied with the current location of the piano.

“I had more trouble letting go of it than I thought. …[But,] my aunt [Rata Present] taught, so I know she’d be happy with where it [is],” Gruber said. “She would be most pleased that the students will benefit [from] and appreciate this piano.”

Santos said that Present bought the Knabe piano towards the end of her career, after playing her Steinway piano for many years. Although the piano was made in 1969, Santos said the piano is still in remarkable condition.

“The touch [of the piano] was great; the sound was great,” Santos said. “It’s 51 years old and it still plays beautifully. You can see why it was appraised so high (at $6,000) because it’s in wonderful condition.”

Upon the arrival of the grand piano, Santos said her students were shocked.

“The students were, first of all, amazed that anybody would donate such an incredibly beautiful instrument to our school and they are overwhelmed with the generosity of the family,” Gruber said.

But with an instrument of such value in the classroom, Santos said she has implemented rules for students’ use of the piano.

“[The choir students] treat that instrument with the utmost respect,” Santos said. “We have asked them to not touch the piano, and they don’t touch it because they respect our request; they want to help keep the piano so [that] it can be used for many years to come. It’s not overstating it that [Smith and I] are very protective of the instrument.”

Besides students’ respect and appreciation of the piano, Santos said she insures that students know the history of the piano by displaying a framed picture of Present and a plaque honoring the Gruber family in the classroom.

“We have this beautiful instrument, [so it is] incredible…to have the actual concert pianist’s picture in our classroom [in order] for present and future generations to come through [the classroom] and…know who played this piano,” Santos said.

Santos said she was astonished that her long-held hope of playing a grand piano in her choir classroom was fulfilled.

“Dreams come true,” Santos said. “I have dreamed about [having a grand piano in the classroom] for years. But, I didn’t feel like I could ask for such an incredible instrument for our classroom, because we do have a good upright piano. You just never know; through the generosity of others, dreams come true.”