Laura Spitzer's Traveling Piano

A traveling musician hauls her Steinway grand piano to small towns of the American West.
By Edwin Kiester
September/October 1990
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Turning her back on Carnegie Hall, Laura Spitzer prefers the wide open spaces.
PHOTO: RICHARD T. STEPHENS
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At 1:30 in the morning the big white truck rolled across 5,750-foot Morgan Summit and began the winding descent through the firs and pines, down Highway 36 toward the 1,600 sleeping inhabitants of Chester, California. Laura Spitzer had been at the wheel nearly nine hours since leaving her last gig in Coalinga, California, 500 miles to the south. But after pulling off the highway for a quick nap in the makeshift bed in the back, her mind was clear and alert, able to map out the events of the day to come. When she reached the home of her hostess, Teresa Rogers, of the Plumas County Arts Council, Laura dismounted from the truck's cab and went around to the back. She gave an affectionate and reassuring pat to her six-foot Steinway grand piano, lashed to the wall inside the truck—her companion in what she calls "my continuing mission."

For the past six years, Laura Spitzer, her truck and her piano have been crisscrossing the small-town West, bringing Chopin, Liszt and Joplin to U.S. and Canadian villages of 50 and 100 and 500 people, playing almost anyplace where two or three are gathered together. During 1989–90, audiences heard her arpeggios in Duckwater, Nevada (pop. 150), Shoshone, California, in Death Valley (pop. 80), McCall, Idaho (1,600), and Cheweleh, Washington (1,900). The odometer in her traveling home/headquarters logged 15,000 miles in six months. This fall she expects to roll up even more. She will give 42 concerts in small towns on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, alone.

In Duckwater, one-third of the population attended her concert—along with seven of the town's eight schoolkids.

You might compare Laura Spitzer, sowing the love of good music in the far-off nooks and crannies of the North American landscape, to Johnny Appleseed. Or perhaps to Lotta Crabtree and Jenny Lind, who wowed the lonely gold and silver miners in the heyday of Mark Twain's Roughing It. Trained for concert performance at both the prestigious Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria (where she was graduated with distinction), and at the Peabody Institute in the United States, she has turned her back on the formal, big-city recital halls to play in high school gyms and church basements—even in living rooms—in communities where, as one woman was to say in Chester, "we are starved for real music."

To Laura the mystique of music cannot be separated from the appeal of the outdoors: the open spaces, the sagebrush, the pines, the mountaintops. Some of her former classmates ply the concert circuit, hopping from city to city to perform before audiences in formal gowns and black tie, in auditoriums with velvet cushions. Laura prefers a truck with a bed space and an ice chest, musical scores piled on the floor, wet laundry drying and her listeners five feet from the piano, seated on folding chairs.

"Engaging and expert," the New York Times wrote of her when she played the Big Apple. But she'd rather quote the Ely, Nevada, Daily Times: "Her ability to relate to an audience and her total piano mastery leaves an audience spellbound." "After all," Laura says," In New York, I might be the tenth pianist to perform in a week. In Duckwater I may be the first…ever."

A Concert Circuit of Small Town America

Compared with some of her other stops, coming to Chester was like visiting a metropolis. More accurately, it is a typical off-the-beaten-track American small town. Say "California," and most people think of the sprawling smog belt of Los Angeles and San Diego, Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, or the burgeoning cities of the Central Valley, such as Sacramento and Fresno. Chester could be on the moon, for all people on Rodeo Drive know.

Three hours north of Sacramento, six hours from San Francisco and light-years from Los Angeles, Chester nestles under volcanic Mount Lassen, surrounded by forested slopes. It has two grocery stores and a four-lane main street. The year's big event was the Fourth of July parade; the nearest cinema is in Susanville, 35 miles away. Quincy, the county seat, is 45 minutes in the other direction. Indeed, all of Plumas County contains only 20,000 people in an area the size of Rhode Island. The county hasn't a single traffic light and sees no need for any. What it does have, however, is lots of trees, the shimmering surface of Lake Almanor, air you can actually breathe and three to six feet of snow in winter. Folks make their money from logging and from the handful of tourists who come to fish for salmon and hunt for deer.

When Laura Spitzer began the day's concert program, her first stop wasn't Chester, but Westwood, 13 miles away in Lassen County. Even more remote and isolated, Westwood has its own colorful history. Years ago it was a boom logging town of 20,000 (a towering carving of Paul Bunyan and his blue ox, Babe, attests to the continuing dominance of logging in the town's economy. Then in the 1950s the timber company closed its mill and pulled out. The population fled. By 1970 Westwood was practically a ghost town. A few holdouts stayed, and gradually the population straggled back to about 2,000.

"Stop everything!" principal Terry Ferguson instructed his teachers at Fletcher Walker Elementary School when Laura Spitzer offered an impromptu concert. "We're so far away, our kids have so few real opportunities, that when we get one we jump at the chance," he said later. Thus, at 2 P.M., Laura sat down at an ivory-colored upright piano before a semicircle of 175 10- to 14-year-olds plopped on a gym floor, raced her fingers up and down the keyboard and began to play.

Actually, to describe Laura Spitzer as a pianist is a bit like classifying Bo Jackson as merely an athlete. She is also an entertainer, a teacher, a vibrant personality and an inspiration. "I'm here because I followed my dream," she told the students. "I'm a truck driver and a piano tuner and a pianist because I wanted to go to places to play for people like you. People said to me, 'You can't do that,' but I did. So I say to you, When you have a dream, follow it. When people say, 'Nah. Why? You'll never be able to do that,' listen to your dream. If you love what you're doing, you can never fail."

Then, with a chord, she launched her musical program. "Who has heard of Johann Sebastian Bach?" she asked. Almost every hand went up. Music teacher Lou Hamilton beamed with pleasure. She spun off a few tidbits about Bach ("He had to work hard, he had 20 children. He must have been hyper with all those kids") and explained his pioneer role in concert music. "In those days, there was no rock, there was no heavy metal, there was no country and western, there wasn't even what we call 'classical music.' He invented baroque music. Say 'bah-roak."'

The answer came back 'bah-roak!' And off she went into a sprightly rendition from The Well-Tempered Clavier. 

The gym floor was hard, yet there was astonishingly little childish squirming. Watching her flying fingers, mesmerized by the rippling sound, the young audience sat silent and attentive. When she finished, the applause was strong and enthusiastic. She stood, smiled and gave a quick curtsy. Then she launched into little chats about composers, punctuating each one with a sample of their works—tales of "Wolfie" Mozart, the child prodigy; "Papa" Haydn, who composed the Surprise Symphony, with its unexpected crashing crescendo, to wake up drowsy audiences ("There were two surprises," she told the students. "One, that he did it and two, that he never did it again!"); Franz Liszt, the ladies' man who was followed by female fans with tweezers hoping to pluck out a coveted lock of his hair; Frederic Chopin, who wrote a waltz about a dog chasing his tail.

Then, while her audience clapped along, she swung into the exuberant rhythms of Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" ("Ragtime wasn't played in concert halls. It was played in saloons for cowboys with dust on their hats and mud on their boots, who'd been stepping around cow pies all day"). And finally, she told them about Mily Balakirev, who wanted to compose the most difficult piano piece ever written and then couldn't play it himself. Laura showed that she could play it ("I had two years to practice, he only had a few weeks"). With the last hammering chord, the young audience was up and cheering and a shrill whistle broke across the applause. Assistant principal Robert Clark later admitted sheepishly that he had become carried away.

"How did you get so good?" 10-year-old Richard Congreve asked. "I practiced," Laura told him. "A little bit at a time. You know how you eat a steak? You don't cram it all into your mouth at once. You cut off a little piece and chew that and then another little piece and chew that. That's how I did it. I'd play a few bars like this, until I knew them, and then a few more, like this, until I had learned it all."

Getting the Traveling Piano on the Road

The road that brought Laura Spitzer to Chester and Westwood was both circuitous and romantic. In 1979 she accompanied the man she was later to marry to Las Vegas. As she acknowledges, her new home was a place not noted for cultural amenities. To make a living, she taught at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas and gave private lessons. But the concert performer was frustrated because she had so few opportunities to perform.

One day she was lamenting to a friend at the university. Perhaps, she said, she could tour some of the other towns in the state. "There are probably only four places in the state where you could find suitable pianos," he said. After a few exploratory phone calls, she concluded he was right: Concert grands in Nevada were in short supply. But it was that very piano famine that inspired an idea: Why not pack her own instrument and tour places where pianists had never gone?

Slowly her plan took shape. She learned to dismantle her 650-pound Steinway and lash it to a truck wall. She phoned a rental company and persuaded the owner to lend her a truck. She coaxed a piano-tuner friend, Lorelle Nelson, to accompany her. She wheedled a small grant from the Nevada State Council on the Arts to pay for the gas and support herself. The arts council helped her line up appearances, and away across the Nevada sagebrush the two women went.

It was a concert series full of surprises, played for grateful audiences who could never believe a real musician would seek out such a faraway place. One day, tooling down an empty highway, the borrowed truck began to cough and sputter. The two women realized they had run out of gas. Laura walked 20 minutes down the road to the nearest ranch. Invited into the home, she was astonished to find a perfectly preserved and tuned Steinway grand. "It was my mother's," explained rancher Susie Fallini. "She was a concert pianist. No one has played it since she died. I'd love to hear it played again." After borrowing some gas, Laura came back and practiced all afternoon, while Fallini listened with tears in her eyes. Later the grateful pianist gave a private Thanksgiving salon concert in the Fallini living room for the nearest neighbors—all seven of them.

In Panaca (pop. 300), 200 people braved a blizzard to attend her concert. Duckwater turned out one-third of its 150 population, and seven of the town's eight schoolkids. At the town homecoming in Caliente (pop. 900), she gave a concert across the way from a pig-wrestling contest; audiences with mud still on their boots came to hear her play amid the accompanying squeals and oinks. The concert was held on the platform of the old Caliente railway depot. Midway through "Rhapsody in Blue," a 90-car freight train punctuated the performance.

She played in a saloon, a made-over auto-repair garage and a gambling casino. She played in Round Mountain, found by turning off onto a dirt road with a sign, ROUND MOUNTAIN, 1 MILE. Later, when she returned for another performance, the sign read, ROUND MOUNTAIN, 3 MILES. The whole trailer community had picked up and moved, following the silver mine.

After that first successful season, she extended her range across Nevada and into bordering communities such as Markleeville, California, and Wendover, Utah. By the following year, she was also traveling to Wyoming and Arizona and was now covering 80 towns, in forays from her Las Vegas base.

Meanwhile, she learned to make her own bookings. She would call the telephone operator in a small town and ask to be connected to the school. She would offer whoever would listen a school concert or a community recital, whichever they preferred. Once she simply marched into the courthouse in Goldfield, Nevada, buttonholed an officeholder and signed up for a concert on the spot.

Then in 1987, her marriage broke up. The grant expired. And piano tuner Nelson could no longer spare time for long road trips. Laura decided to cut all ties and become a true wandering minstrel. "It was a very low point for me," she recalls. "I left everything behind. My home, my friends, my teaching. I just decided I would take all that bad energy and turn it into good energy. I was going to use it to make a career, instead of feeling sorry for myself."

With "the help of my mother and the bank," she bought her own truck, fitted it out with a bed space, asked a friend in Las Vegas to relay phone calls, and hit the road. A road that, in the three years since, has taken her into nine states and three countries.

A Memorable Performance

The Mothers' Day concert in Chester was Stop No. 22 on Laura's 1990 schedule. When the Westwood school performance ended, Laura followed her automatic routine. She ate a late lunch and crammed in a couple hours of practice on a borrowed baby grand. Then she drove the truck to the school and rounded up a stevedoring crew of the music teacher, two radio station employees, a school custodian and a visiting writer.

Gingerly, the group wrestled the quarter-ton dismantled piano out of its storage space in the truck, tipped it on edge and rolled it into the gymnasium/auditorium of the Chester Elementary School—the only raised stage in town. With the ease of long practice, Laura herself served as foreman. She unfastened the restraining straps, told each crew member when and where to lift and, finally, crawled under the reassembled instrument to hammer the massive legs into place.

"People in small towns are always glad to help," she observed afterwards. "One night the moving crew might be sheriff's deputies; the next night, a weight-lifting team; on Wednesday, a group of convicts. Once I had the town mayor, a man in a tuxedo on his way to a party and a man who, I found out later, was just recovering from a heart attack."

At 7:30, having exchanged her jeans for a shimmering, full-length blue gown, she was back in the school watching the audience file into the folding chairs, whose placement she had personally supervised. About 100 residents appeared—"Not bad for a Friday night in Chester on short notice," Teresa Rogers assured her—families with children, well-dressed elders from the lakefront summer colony, a bearded lumberjack in plaid shirt and baseball cap, a waitress from the local pizza parlor. Music teacher Lou Hamilton had come from Westwood for the evening concert, too. A man who loves the outdoors and music with equal passion, he had stopped at Lake Almanor on the way and "limited out," that is, caught his daily limit of five silver salmon.

Rogers delivered a short introduction and Laura appeared. But she displayed none of the stiffness of big-name pianists at big-city concerts. Instead she was chatty and conversational, coming out to the footlights ("first time they've been turned on in 10 years," the custodian marveled) to talk amiably to the audience. She told a few Chopin and Liszt stories, then swung into action.

It was what she calls "my formula concert," mixing some dazzlingly difficult numbers with "a few bonbons." Like the Westwood children, the adult audience was attentive. Not one cough or rustle could be heard, until she brought them to their feet with Chopin's rousing Polonaise. She followed Chopin with a complex, 15-minute piano version of Ravel's La Valse—"the longest thing I ever ask of them."

The friendly, informal atmosphere continued at intermission. While the audience sipped punch and coffee served by Rogers (who also took the tickets and distributed the programs, Laura mingled and bantered. "I want to see your hands!" one woman said teasingly. "They seem to have a life all their own!" "Do you do exercises to keep in shape for these performances?" a man asked, alluding to the vigorous thumping she had given the keys. "If you play Liszt," Laura responded, "you never have to jog." Another woman came up and took both Laura's hands in hers. "Thank you so much for coming," she said. "You were magnificent." Then the audience readjourned to the auditorium for Joplin, Gershwin and Balakirev, after which Laura and her crew loaded the piano back into the truck, to be ready for an early-morning departure, and her next visiting gig.

"It annoys me when my city friends imply that I'm bringing culture to the backward people in the boondocks," she said the next day, over homemade sausage and eggs at Chester's favorite breakfast spot, the Kopper Kettle. "First of all, a lot of the people who attend my concerts have come from the cities. In fact, I get the best response from transplanted city dwellers. This area is full of people who have run away from L.A. because they're sick of the smog and the rat race. But they do miss good music. And the others…in Coalinga a woman came up and said, 'I've heard Rubinstein and I've heard Rachmaninoff, and you're better.' Skip the compliment. Here's a woman in a small town in the middle of nowhere who knew and had heard the best.

"The other thing is, living in a city and attending dozens of events can breed an arrogance and prejudice that is a greater barrier to appreciation than underexposure. City audiences want their Chopin, like their bacon and eggs, just so. Small-town audiences are more tolerant and have fewer preconceived ideas. I'm surprised over and over by my audiences. One night a miner waited for me after my performance. He was still in his work clothes, his beat-up boots. He took exception to some of the things I had said about Liszt, said I was giving him a bad rap. I didn't agree, but I thought, This man really knows his music."

The intimacy and informality of small-town halls and auditoriums add spice to a concert, she feels. "You know, there's no reason for this petrified formula in which the musician comes out, bows, sits at the piano and never acknowledges the audience or says a word," she declares. "Liszt originated the solo piano performance, and he was the most informal of performers. He'd play for a while, and then he'd get up from the piano and talk to the audience and wave to his friends, and then after a while he would saunter back to the piano and play some more. Nothing stiff and arrogant about him."

Spitzer's Musical Mission

Driving from Cheweleh to Coalinga to Chester isn't a lonely life, she insists. "The truck is part of me, an extension of my dream. It's full of me and my vibrations. Actually, the only loneliness I experience is musical. I miss being able to talk shop, being able to talk about how this phrase should be turned, how to approach this trio. I do miss all that."

How long can she maintain her missionary zeal? Sometimes, the 37-year-old acknowledges, she yearns for a stable relationship, for a marriage and family "before it's too late." "Sometimes I feel like I'm just peeping over the fence at life," she says. "I think, Laura, you've got to add some sanity to your life. A pinch of sanity, like an herb. I don't really find much missing in my life, but perhaps in the long run, there would be."

The musical nomad set down her teacup and headed back for the truck. "When I was making my first tour, I called a man in Eureka, Nevada, a village of maybe 500, out in the mid dle of the state. And he agreed right away. I said, 'What's a good day for a concert?' And he said, 'I don't know, we've never had one before.' I called him recently and said I was coming through again, and he said, 'Well, let's see when we can fit you in. We have a flutist coming, and then there's the Army band...'

"I liked that response, because if he had said yes right away, I'd have known that nothing had changed. I'm not worth a damn to the community or its kids if I'm just a blip on a screen, kind of a dim memory that they have or don't have. They'll remember me better if there's a whole stream of us coming, an artist every other month. That's the mission. That's what I'm all about."

With that, she climbed into the cab and headed her truck down Main Street, past the Elks Club, past the Ches-Mart, past the Knotbumper restaurant, in the direction of Quincy, Graeagle, Sattley and Sierraville, on her way to a "big city" performance in Fallon, Nevada (pop. 4,000).


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