The journey of a pianist and her piano

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Nicholas Clarke practises on his new piano before heading to his morning shift at the butcher’s. Stephen Clarke photo

By Steve Clarke

Jan. 11, 2017

Gillian Kugel’s piano teacher thought she had an immeasurable amount of talent. She trained her to be a concert pianist.

She was six-years-old, living in England.

Kugel, 81, also has less pleasant memories of that time. It was the 1940s, and England was at war with Germany.

Kugel’s family lived in London. They had no food. She was shipped out to the countryside before being sent back due to illness.

Then the bombers came.

The air raid sirens would go off.

“I am so tired. I just want to go to sleep,” she thought.

“Leave me alone.”

After the bombings stopped, her father went to an auction where he saw a piano fit for a prodigy.

“I can say with certainty that the piano was manufactured for the Queen Elizabeth,” said Commodore Everette Hoard of the R.M.S. Queen Mary.

The Elizabeth was intended to be a luxury cruise liner before construction was interrupted by the Second World War and rushed to New York in 1940.

The piano never made it aboard.

Gillian’s father purchased it.

The piano is made of thuya wood with a sycamore trim, and an applewood tuning board.

It sat in the living room of their home, where some famous concert pianists played on the piano. Friends of Kugel’s parents.

They left England in 1948. Kugel was 11.

She turned 12 on the ship.

Famous playwright and songwriter, Noël Coward, cut her birthday cake.

“Only one person from first-class wasn’t there. Me. I was busy being seasick.”

They arrived at the port in New York. They had distant relatives living in Long Island, one of them, a doctor.

“I have to show you something Gillian, because I think you need to know this.”

He took her and her mother up to his bedroom, opened a drawer and pulled out a pistol.

She screamed.

He looked at her.

“You better get used to it because everyone in America has a gun.”

“That was my introduction to America,” said Kugel.

Later they settled in Los Angeles.

It was there she met her husband, Herb.

The movie stars lived in Beverly Hills, but they lived together in a town called Pasadena.

Because of the dry climate, the piano didn’t fair as well.

What frustrated Kugel more, however, was Herb. He was a mathematician. She felt he would have been a natural at the piano but she couldn’t get him to learn.

“He simply had no interest. His interest was world wars one and two aviation.”

When Herb retired the couple came to Canada. Kugel fell in love.

Less than 20 years ago they settled in their home in Nova Scotia.

Kugel was painting a lot on the side, but as she became older she found it hard to focus. Herb fell ill and Gillian’s health also declined.

“This all happened so fast.”

She knew she would have to sell the piano, but it couldn’t be to just anyone.

Then she got a call from an interested buyer.

A butcher.

“Sometimes you just get that feeling. That’s the right person,” said Kugel.

Nicholas Clarke has an Honours Bachelor in Music, and has composed over 300 original compositions.

“I believe a composition is premeditated. It doesn’t need to be written down.”

Clarke’s hands have graced many pianos in his lifetime. He sold his last one and was looking for something new.

“It is a beautiful piano.”

The sound it produced was remarkable, said Clarke, who played it for Kugel.

After 75 years she will miss it, but is glad Nick has it, she said.

“This was someone who could love the piano, and that was important to me.”