December 8, 2019

Loss of Finger Doesn’t Stop Pianist

Concert for Left Hand Feb. 17
By Ross Boissoneau | Feb. 9, 2019

For Dr. Michael Coonrod, Memorial Day weekend 2014 was looking like any other. He went camping with the scout troop he sponsors, and after dinner they decided to go on a hike, as they had the previous year. But when Coonrod tried to clamber over a barbed wire fence, the ring on the fourth finger of his right hand got stuck in one of the barbs. The weight of his body pulled the skin, muscle, and tendons off his finger.

Coonrod said there was surprisingly little blood or pain at first. “The nerves were ripped,” he said. “It wasn’t super painful — mostly anguish.” 

Traumatic for anyone, the accident was even more devastating for Coonrod, a professional pianist and instructor at Interlochen.

Within three hours, he was flying to Ann Arbor, where a team of surgeons worked for four hours to reattach the finger. “It was experimental. They used leeches to try to get the blood to flow,” he said. Unfortunately, the surgery was unsuccessful. The pianist ultimately had the finger amputated.

He was appreciative about two things, however. “I was grateful it didn’t happen to a student. And I got back in time to see graduation. I had it amputated in the morning, and graduation was the next day,” he said.

While all this was happening, his friends and colleagues were trying to figure out how they could help him. Fellow piano instructor TJ Lymenstull and his wife, Susan Day, also a pianist, were among the first to hear of the accident. “We were absolutely devastated. I couldn’t sleep that night,” Day said. 

That was when she came up with the idea of commissioning a piano piece that could be played with only the left hand. “There’s a long tradition” of such pieces, she said. Within a week, she had fleshed out the idea and, with the help of her daughter, set up a GoFundMe account. She reached out to colleagues, fellow pianists and musicians, and Coonrod’s former students.

“We reached a significant number of people influenced by Michael,” she said.

 

“What I didn’t know was that a prominent teacher and friend had a foundation that was used to promote projects [like this]. When she heard about it, she doubled the amount,” said Day. 

The fundraiser ultimately grew to over $13,000. Coonrod decided he would ask his friend Kenji Bunch to compose the piece. “He’s a unique composer,” said Coonrod, who met Bunch when they were both working at a music camp in Owensboro, Kentucky. “He was the composer in residence, and we were bunkmates. He gave a master class I really liked. At least five of my colleagues said they were glad I chose him.”

Bunch is in such demand as a composer that it took him nearly three years to get to the piece. But when he did, he was able to compose rather quickly. He started in February, and Coonrod had the first movement in April, the second in June, and the third and final movement in September.

Coonrod said the composition is everything he hoped it would be. “All the movements are different,” he said. “It starts with piano cadenzas. It’s very dramatic. The second is slow and impressionistic, with harp and piano and a horn solo.” 

The piece builds to what Coonrod said is a joyful conclusion. “It builds to a feverish pitch. It’s happy, and the climax is triumphant.” Bunch also put in a solo for viola, his own instrument. “He’s a viola virtuoso,” said Coonrod.

Coonrod said he cannot play exactly the same as he did previously, and for that reason he chooses not to play most of the pieces he knew before, instead challenging himself to learn new ones. “I can’t play too long, and my had gets cold. I love Schubert and can do all of that,” said Coonrod. On the other hand, he said Chopin etudes or extremely fast Liszt pieces are still beyond him.

 

TSO Musical Director Kevin Rhodes is looking forward to the concert. “When Michael approached us to perform the premiere, I immediately jumped at the opportunity both to play a new work by a prominent composer and to celebrate Michael’s heroism and perseverance in the face of daunting circumstances,” he said in a press release. “He is an inspiration to us all.”

Go, Listen
On Feb. 17, the Traverse Symphony Orchestra will feature guest artist Dr. Michael Coonrod in the premiere of a friend Kenji Bunch’s Concerto for Piano, Left Hand, which was commissioned to feature the pianist, who suffered a devastating accident that resulted in the loss of the ring finger on his right hand. The Sunday concert begins at 3pm, and also includes two pieces by Beethoven, the Egmont Overture and his Symphony No. 3 in E flat major (Eroica), cornerstones of the classical tradition. Tickets start at $25.50. Go to www.traversesymphony.org.

 

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