A household with seven children is going to be a household filled with love, laughter, and—well—ear-splitting noise. Just ask Michelina Tyrie. When the Spokane, Washington resident was raising her brood of six daughters and one son, she learned to accept and even appreciate the noise level, especially as her children grew and joined their mother—an accomplished pianist, teacher, and accompanist, in the passionate pursuit of music and performance.
But there’s another sound in the score of Michelina’s life, and it’s a sound that has remained constant for more than fifty years: the music of the Steinway & Sons grand piano she purchased in 1961, when she was just twenty-one years old. It’s quite an instrument: a 1923 Mahogany Louis XV Model A grand with a tone she describes simply as “brilliant.”
Michelina has made her living with this piano. She taught on it, performed on it, composed on it, and loved it. She even used it as a tool to soothe her children when they were small; oldest daughter Sheila remembers falling asleep with her head on her mother’s foot as it smoothly, rhythmically rocked up and down on the Steinway’s sustain pedal. The story of Michelina and her Steinway grand piano is a story of love, endurance, memory, and the two ties that have proven more binding than any others: family and music.
“A Piano Made of Gold”
Though barely out of her teens, Michelina was building quite a reputation as a talented pianist when she first met the instrument that was to be her closest companion for the next five decades. At nineteen, as a student at the Chicago Conservatory of Music, she competed in a contest and won the opportunity to perform with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Orchestra Hall. Two years later, finding herself with more and more opportunities to perform, teach, and accompany, she decided it was time to purchase “a proper piano.”
It happened fast. Michelina went with her father to a piano store in downtown Chicago. When she performed for the shop owner, a man she affectionately recalls as “Mr. Panini,” his response was stunned admiration. “A pianist like this,” he proclaimed to Michelina’s father, “needs a piano made of gold.” As luck would have it, something even better was in the shop that day: the Louis XV Model A. Michelina bought it on the spot—at age twenty-one—and since that time she’s cherished it as the cornerstone of a long career in music and as one of her family’s most treasured heirlooms.
Michelina graduated from the Conservatory in 1963. She and her first husband, fellow Conservatory alumnus Edward McCarthy, soon opened the Court School of Music, teaching piano and voice in Wisconsin. Between 1964 and 1975, the couple had seven children: Brian, Sheila, Colleen, Candace, Dawn, Bridget, and Leslie. Three became professional musicians: Brian McCarthy (pianist), Sheila Bosco (percussionist/experimental artist), and Dawn McCarthy (singer and songwriter). In 1981, Michelina earned a Master’s Degree in Music at Eastern Washington University. Six years later, she married Rich Tyrie, and the couple now lives in Spokane, Washington.
For more than five decades, Michelina has risen every morning to practice at her Steinway piano, and the talent and skill she developed through the years has kept her busy indeed: she has continually worked as a freelance musician teaching piano, performing, and accompanying a diverse range of musical groups. Today, Michelina is a church organist/pianist as well as the accompanist for the German Concordia Choir of Spokane. She takes special pleasure in performing at retirement homes, marveling at the power music has to awaken long-dormant memories and associations in the seniors who listen to her play. She also enjoys performing in an annual Christmas show at Spokane’s historic Paulsen Building on a Steinway grand piano provided by Steinway Piano Gallery of Spokane.
Teach Your Children Well
One of the things Michelina is most proud of, regarding her Steinway piano, is the impact it had on her seven children. She taught all of her kids to play piano, even continuing the tradition today with daughter Sheila via long-distance Skype lessons. Another daughter, Dawn McCarthy, is now a well-known folk musician and creator of the band Faun Fables, whose 2004 album features a song called “A Mother and Her Piano.”
“It’s about Mom and her Steinway, and the power, strength, and autonomy it gave her,” Dawn said. And indeed, the lyrics tell the story most powerfully: “Within the songs, she planned our flight / I’ll never forget that she rode us on her back / to a new life / Mother and a piano.”
All of Michelina’s children, in fact, have memories of “Mom and her Steinway.” Daughter Bridget remembers playing under the piano as a small child while her mother practiced. “We would pretend the piano was a space ship, taking us on adventures. Sometimes as part of our game, my mother would play very dramatic or scary music. It was like having your own soundtrack!”
Brian McCarthy, Michelina’s first born and only son, said his mother’s ability to shape her children’s lives with her Steinway started even before her first baby was born. “My mother always said that she wasn’t surprised I like Beethoven, because she was practicing Beethoven’s 3rd Piano Concerto while she was pregnant with me.” He smiles at the memory. “So, I’ve been listening to my mom play her piano since before I was born—and you know what? I still enjoy hearing her play to this day.”
For her own part, Michelina remains as passionate about her Steinway piano as she was the day she first saw it in that Chicago music store. “It’s brilliant,” she says. And she repeats it for good measure. “It’s absolutely brilliant—in terms of tone, sound, appearance, everything. That’s the best way I can describe it. Every time I play on another piano at a venue or performance hall, I have to stop myself from saying to everyone, ‘Well, this is nice, but really you should see my piano.’” She laughs. “I spoiled myself by buying my Steinway so young and keeping it so long. Now nothing else will do.”