Laura Spitzer's Traveling Piano

Read about this traveling musician and why she hauls her Steinway grand piano from town to town across the American West.

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    Turning her back on Carnegie Hall, Laura Spitzer prefers the wide open spaces.
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    Bouncy and exuberant, Spitzer puts on concerts that are as rousing as jam sessions.

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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."

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