August 21, 2017
Population: 883
Venue: Ninilchik Senior Center

When I first started planning tour, I didn’t know a single person or venue in Alaska, so the beginning sparks were ignited purely through the magic powers of Google, Facebook, and cold e-mails. Figuring out the tour route was relatively easy: Southeastern Alaska (places like Juneau, Ketchikan, Skagway) were out of the question since I would have to transport the van on ferries between destinations, putting me over budget very quickly. The only major roads in Alaska are a circle that connects Anchorage, Fairbanks, and the northeastern town of Tok, and an arm that extends from Anchorage out onto the Kenai Peninsula, so those roads were basically my only options. Many Alaskan communities - predominantly consisting of native Alaskans and colloquially referred to as “villages” - are only accessible by bush plane. I hope to visit some day, piano in tow. 

One of the very first venues I found through Google and contacted was the Ninilchik Senior Center - on January 9, 2017, to be exact. Lucky for me, the then-director Dianna was enthusiastic over e-mail even though I had none of the logistics in place at the time, writing: “I think this project would be amazing…you are a very interesting young woman!” In the following months, she not only wrote me a support letter for a (successful) grant application, she fielded my endless questions patiently. Me - a total stranger to her. My main source of excitement for our Ninilchik stop was to get to meet Dianna in person.

When we arrived in Ninilchik, I was surprised by how desolate it felt. There was no town to speak of - even Cooper Landing had more to offer, with their < 300 population size. There was a coffee shack, a beautiful coastline, a lot of residential backroads in the woods, a seemingly out-of-place Thai restaurant that was exceptionally good, and the Senior Center. I wondered if anyone would come to the concert - when we arrive in the afternoon for load-in, there were five or six ladies crocheting at a round table. As Jarett rolled in the piano, a woman outside the building asked what we were moving:

Jarett “A piano!”
Woman “Piano? UGH"

Ominous, but our worries were unnecessary. The turnout was great, with a very reactive audience. It felt like we were all long time friends. In the first video above, I love everyone’s listening faces as I play Bach; everyone’s glowing, either full of contentment or deep in contemplation. In the second video, I’m playing Rachmaninoff as an encore. I noticed that the Senior Center had its own piano, tucked away in a corner, and decided it deserved some love, too. The man you see in the near right corner in that video, I found out later, had never heard live classical music in his life . The boy in the video had been wanting to start piano lessons, and jumped at the chance to come hear live piano music. It was deeply moving to be able to be of service to these people in such a personal and direct way.

Our hosts that night were Linda and Dick, who live in a beautiful large wood house. Both of them were teachers, and we talked at length about the school systems in Alaska and music education. Dick also made us the best sourdough pancakes I’ve ever tasted, from a history-rich starter batch from decades ago!