Emily Wheeler has always been drawn to pianos.
That goes for the beginner piano on which she took lessons as a 7-year-old as well as the upright Yamaha studio piano family friends owned and eventually gave her as a high school graduation present.
So it should come as no surprise that while serving as a COVID-19 screener at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, the baby grand piano in the lobby caught her eye in a big way.
Wheeler, now a guest services specialist with the Division of Public Safety and Security at Mott, reached out to the Gift of Arts program to see if she’d be allowed to play it.
They put her on the list, and for the past five months, Wheeler has spent many of her days off sitting at that baby grand piano playing music from her heart to bring joy and alleviate stress for patients, staff and visitors during a most stressful time.
“I had passed it multiple times while I was working, and I felt so bad because it was such a beautiful instrument, but it just wasn’t being played,” Wheeler said. “I asked if there was any way I could play that piano some time on a break or just come in, so I usually come in on my day off and play for an hour, hour and a half.”
As much of a thrill as it is for Wheeler to play that piano, the response from those who have heard her music has been astounding. She recalled a little girl of no more than 4 years old who stared at her while she played for a few minutes then broke into dance to the soft notes.
“It was one of the cutest things I’ve ever seen,” she said.
Then there was the day a parent approached her after she finished a song and said this to her: “Our child is in surgery right now, and today has been so stressful. I just want to let you know that your playing has totally turned around our day. It has just calmed us, it’s made us feel a little bit more hopeful because the music helped us let go of that fear that we’re having.”
“That just spoke volumes to me,” Wheeler said. “Those instances just make it totally worth it to me.”
Not that she needs the reinforcement or accolades to enjoy playing the piano. She’s loved doing so since her great-aunt sat her before that beginner piano her family bought off Craigslist.
At 7 years old, she took to it immediately, eagerly practicing whenever she could. Her younger brother by a year and a half who took lessons at the same time was not so inspired.
“With me, I would try to practice every day because I was just obsessed with it whereas my parents would have to try different tactics to get my younger brother to go practice the piano,” she said. “I would hog it most of the time because I loved it.”
An avid singer as well, she continued to play and sing through middle school and at Lutheran High School in Westland, where she joined a traveling choir.
Not only did she sing while a member of the high school choir, she also accompanied the choir on the piano. An occasional solo performer, which presents its own challenges, she found the job of accompaniment difficult.
“Probably the most pressure I would feel was making sure I accompanied the choir and played all the right notes,” she said. “It was different just because I was a student playing with the student choir, and people would notice that.
“That was the time I learned and grew the most just because I had to make sure I was keeping up with everything, following the director, whereas solo piano playing, as long as it sounds pretty, no one will know if you’re playing the right notes or not.”
While in high school, she followed her great-aunt by learning how to play the pipe organ, which her great-aunt did at their church. When she graduated, the family friends with the upright Yamaha were moving out of state and couldn’t take the piano with them.
“So instead of selling it, they said, ‘We want it to go to a good home, to somebody who will play it and take care of it, so we want to give it to you as a graduation present,’” she said. “I was floored because it is a lovely, lovely instrument. Having it as a graduation gift was absolutely incredible.”
She continued honing her piano- and organ-playing skills at Eastern Michigan University, where she obtained a music minor degree, and was a member of EMU’s choir.
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While there, she took part in a 10-day tour of the southern United States, singing and playing piano in six different states.
“There were about 50 of us in that choir and all had to try out to get into the choir,” she said. “It was very cool to be able to play with a collegiate choir. That trip was awesome.”
She is currently working on a business degree from EMU, and while she eventually wants to work in event coordination — which she has done for four years with the Ann Arbor Art Fair — she took the job as a COVID-19 screener at Mott in September and then as guest services specialist three months later.
She’s in her element assisting visitors and patients at the hospital as a guest services specialist, but she’s most in her element behind the baby grand, playing classical tunes, soft jazz or Disney favorites.
Wheeler said when the pandemic lifts, she’d like to try out the Ann Arbor music scene, find a coffee shop and play her upbeat, swingy brand of jazz on the piano. But for now, she said, she’s blessed to be able to perform at Mott when she’s able.
“The best part is just being able to give a bright spot to patients and the families, even if it’s just a smile in the day,” she said.