A Piano for Christmas –
My Christmas Miracle in 1997
By: Jason Tonioli
From the book: Stories for Christmas
A Piano for Christmas
I would like to tell you the story of two pianos which have had special meaning in my life. From the time I was a toddler, there were many photos taken of me sitting at a piano trying to play it. That upright “Hobart M Cable” piano was a gift from my grandparents, Ray and Bessie Johansen, to my mom after she was married. They said they wanted their future grandchildren to be able to learn to play the piano, and my mom determined that the generous gift would be put to good use. I was the oldest in the family, followed by three sisters.
My mother was my first piano teacher and I welcomed the idea of taking piano lessons with anticipation and excitement. Like most kids, my eagerness was soon tempered by the fact that to have success playing, hours of practice are required. We were living in Soda Springs, Idaho and in a few months, Mrs. Murdoch became my teacher, followed by Mrs. Willie when we moved to a different state.
The rule in my house was that piano lessons were a requirement for every child. Practicing the piano for lessons was also required – not optional. The time came when all four of us were taking piano lessons. My mom would often sit at the end of the bench, insisting that we count and play rhythm and notes correctly. Sometimes there were battles and tears over practicing, but in the end, my mom won what we affectionately call “the piano wars” and all was well. With four kids taking piano lessons, my grandparents’ gift was played constantly.
As I entered high school, I found I enjoyed playing piano the most when I could play what I wanted, the way I wanted. When practicing, I would often play parts of what Mozart, Beethoven, or Rachmaninoff had written and part of what I made up to sound the way I thought it should sound. However, in addition to playing piano and singing in a choir, I found I had an affinity for activities like school swim team, diving team, soccer, and rock climbing. There wasn’t enough time for me to do everything I liked, and at the end of 10th grade I convinced my parents to let me quit piano lessons.
During the next year, I would play the piano a little, but without any goals or expectations, my progress stalled. Along the way, I made a life changing discovery – playing piano was a part of me and I missed it! At the beginning of 12th grade, I talked my piano teacher into letting me take lessons again and committed to my parents that I would make time to practice. Along with assigned lessons, I started writing piano songs, and even won a school contest for a duet I had written. I began to make frequent trips to the local piano store to play their new, digital pianos which could record the songs I played.
As Christmas approached in my freshman year of university, I dreamed of saving enough money for a digital piano. It would take years to save enough money from my part-time lifeguard job, not to mention needing money to pay college fees. My parents both worked, but with four children, ages 11-18, there was not a lot of extra money for things we didn’t need. That year, in December 1997, they probably planned to spend no more than $600 on gifts for everyone for Christmas. There was no way they could spend $5,000 for a digital piano for me. It just wasn’t realistic, and we all know that pianos are far too heavy to be pulled in a sleigh and fit down a chimney.
On Christmas morning, the family awoke to presents and the excitement of unwrapping gifts. There was no piano under the tree that morning. In fact, the gifts I received seemed to be particularly underwhelming when compared to my three sisters. I got a music book and a harmonica – and a shirt and tie. The “dad gift” we all joked about was my reality!
When all hope was nearly lost, my father pulled an envelope out from behind the tree and said, “Jason, it looks like this has your name on it.” I opened the envelope and began to read the note. It said to walk down the basement hall and go into the empty room next to mine. My parents and siblings followed me down the hall, and I opened the door to the unfinished room with the cement floor. In the corner, there was a digital piano – the exact one that I had dreamed about playing and recording music on! Somehow the piano had been delivered days earlier without me knowing. I just stood there shocked and said, “It’s a piano.” I later learned that my dad felt impressed that it was really important that I have that piano at that time of my life. My parents used a part of a small inheritance my mom received to purchase it.
That digital piano was moved into my bedroom Christmas morning and I played it into the wee hours of the night with headphones on. In the next few years, hundreds of improvisations happened on that digital piano and I wrote many songs. Because of the present of music from my grandparents and parents, those two pianos paved the foundation for a successful music career. I’ve written hundreds of songs that have been published digitally and in piano books, selling nearly 100,000 copies, and I have albums that have been streamed more than 100 million times.
The sacrifice that was made to give a piano to a teenager, who previously didn’t want to practice and had quit piano, will forever be remembered as my best Christmas memory.
We never know how one act of kindness or sacrifice might lead to bigger things.