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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Saturday, May 25, 2024

The pianists of Granoff basement

Owen Johnson, a first-year, is pictured playing the piano in a Granoff Music Center practice room on Dec. 5.

Twelve piano practice rooms are tucked away in the basement of the Perry and Marty Granoff Music Center, but to those who know about them and utilize them, these rooms are an enclave of creativity and relaxation. At any hour, Tufts pianists who practice simply for their own pleasure can be found playing away in Granoff basement. 

First-year student Corey Title fondly recalls seeing the practice rooms when he toured Tufts.

“When I was visiting Tufts, I was crossing my fingers hoping I could find a place like this, and I was told, ‘OK, go to Granoff.’ I went to Granoff. … Then I walk in, and there are like 12 rooms filled with pianos and music, and I was like, ‘Whoa, this is really cool,’” Title said. “So it definitely helped my decision a bit.”

Corey Title performs an original composition. (Audio by Ari Navetta / The Tufts Daily)

Ed Lai, a sophomore pianist, came to know and love the Granoff practice rooms before he was officially a student as well. 

“My sister went to Tufts … so when I was in maybe 10th or ninth grade, whenever she had something at Tufts, I would come visit her, and then she would let me visit the practice rooms,” he said.

Though he has not played in Granoff much recently since getting his own piano setup in his suite, during his first year at Tufts, Lai would often visit those same practice rooms in which he used to play during his high school years when visiting his sister.

“I used to play here just because, you know, good pianos – Steinway & Sons, I like those — but there’s only like one or two of them,” Lai said. “I would just play mostly at night because there’s less people, but at the same time, a lot of people who grind — people who are, like, music majors — are here at night, so it’s a more serious vibe I think, but I just play for fun most of the time.”

Sam Youkeles, also a sophomore pianist, echoed Lai’s sentiment about playing for fun. 

“I'm not part of any formal groups or anything that I need to practice for, so I just go [to the practice rooms] purely for fun,” Youkeles said. “I go at least like twice a week, just kind of to blow off steam. … Whenever the week gets stressful, I go down to the basement to play piano.”

Title, too, said that the practice rooms have become a place of relaxation for him.

“There’s not really anything too deep or complex [about it]. I just love doing it,” Title said. “It’s part of who I am, something I’ve done all my life, and it’s a really good way for me to just empty my mind, relax, and be creative.”

For all three — Title, Lai and Youkeles — piano playing is a skill they learned through formal lessons as children. However, none of them currently take lessons and instead play whichever songs they desire, whenever they wish. 

Title’s love for the piano began at age 5 when he was inspired by his father’s playing.

“I’ve been playing piano since I was 5 years old. My dad was playing a lot at home, and I thought it was really cool. … I started taking lessons around [age] 9 [or] 10, and I was taking them a little on and off,” Title said. “At the beginning of high school, I started taking piano very seriously. … Here, at least, I’ve been playing at least an hour a day every day.” 

Corey Title, a first-year, is pictured playing the piano. (Courtesy Corey Title)

Youkeles’s piano journey started just a bit earlier, at age 4. 

“I’ve been taking lessons since I was like 4, because it’s a family thing. … Up until college, I’ve always taken piano lessons with a piano teacher, but now in college, I’m free from taking lessons, so I can do whatever I want with the piano,” Youkeles said. “Instead of just letting go of it and forgetting it, I make sure to keep it up every once in a while.” 

For Youkeles, keeping up with the piano means playing pieces by his favorite composer, Chopin. 

“I’m a classical pianist, and I really like playing Chopin. I have my book of Chopin in my backpack, so I can take my backpack down to Granoff and pull out my Chopin book and just play,” Youkeles said.

Likewise, Title has some favorite composers of his own, several of whom he has stumbled upon while looking into piano music on YouTube. Among Title’s favorites is Ukrainian pianist and composer Evgeny Khmara.

“There’s this composer and pianist from Ukraine named Evgeny Khmara, and I just stumbled upon him on YouTube, and I was like, ‘Oh, this is cool,’ and I heard him play music, and I said, ‘What’s this piece called?’ and he didn’t even have it titled on his thing, so I had to start looking and searching everywhere. I eventually found the sheet music, and I learned it,” Title said. 

Corey Title performs “Element” by Evgeny Khmara. (Audio by Ari Navetta / The Tufts Daily)

This freedom to choose one’s own piano music is one aspect of playing in the practice rooms that Lai appreciates as well. 

“I try learning different genres. … I try to change it up every now and then,” Lai said. “Right now, I’m trying to learn jazz and more like pop, but in high school, I had lessons every week, and I was supposed to be more like a classical trained pianist, but I have different genres that I like to explore myself, like Asian music, like Japanese music soundtracks or anything from like Hans Zimmer is nice for me.”

Regardless of the songs they choose, and the seemingly solitary, small practice rooms in which they play, these pianists seem to allow a sense of community into their playing, whether by inviting friends to listen to them on occasion or by chance, by playing the same song as their fellow Granoff basement pianists, as was the case for Youkeles during one particular practice session.

“I’ve exclusively played Chopin lately, just Chopin Nocturnes, and so when other people know about Chopin’s Nocturnes, it’s pretty cool. … One evening, I was in Granoff, and I was playing my piece, and then I hear someone else playing the piece next door to me. And like when I stop, I peek out, and there’s somebody also playing the exact same piece across the hall from me,” Youkeles said. “It was crazy. … It was just kind of like a moment there.”