Piano player hits the peaks, in music and mountains
November 30, 2008
When Comstock pianist Squeek Steele sets a goal, she sticks to it no matter where it takes her or what it causes her to do.
In 1988, while living in Philadelphia, she sought a position in the Guinness Book or World Records for performing the most pieces of music from memory in one sitting, covering every genre.
“I wouldn’t do it again; it’s too nerve-wracking,” she said.
To get in the book, she said, you have to submit a proposal to see if anyone had done something before. Then you have to get a venue, a notary to assure you didn’t cheat, submit bios of all the judges, document every aspect of the event including all media reports on it.
She said when a song was easy, like “Happy Birthday,” or “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” she would play with her feet, on a 16-foot “walking piano,” like the one used in the Tom Hanks movie “Big.”
“You play by jumping on it and getting different notes,” she said. “I had a partner from New York and he and I did a show on that in New York, Anaheim, Washington D.C., Scottsdale, AZ, and San Diego.
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She later bought a walking piano she used for educational work, but is now trying to sell it on eBay.
Her latest goal is to climb the highest points in the 11 Western states in the lower 48 while still in her 60s. She has completed nine of them, still making plans for Mt. Ranier in Washington and King’s Peak in Utah.
She climbs Mt. Davidson above Virginia City several times a week to get in shape for the larger climbs, she said, and does Mt. Rose on a regular basis as well.
She said Mt. Elbert in Colorado was a day hike, but almost straight up; Gannett Peak in Wyoming was an ice and show climb; and Montana’s Granite Peak was a technical climb, with ropes.
She has climbed Africa’s Mt. Kilimanjaro, a height of 19,340 feet.
Originally from Eastern Kentucky, Squeek began playing piano at about 3 years of age, then attended the Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio and moved to Philadelphia, teaching and playing music in clubs before moving to the Comstock in 1990. Later she obtained her master’s degree from Catholic University in Washington D.C.
Baptized Barbara Steele, she started making squeaking noises in first grade to attract attention from adults who were gaga over her baby brother, and eventually just became “Squeek.”
Steele now teaches part time at Hugh Gallagher Elementary School in Virginia City and Hillside Elementary School in Lockwood, and in 1994 founded the Comstock Children’s Chorus, to keep part of Virginia City’s history alive, another of her passions.
The Comstock Children’s Chorus, which is the fourth grade of each year at Hugh Gallagher Elementary, performs historic songs annually at the Comstock Historic Preservation Weekend in May.
“For the Comstock, if you read the history, there were tons of children’s choruses singing at every holiday,” she said. “They were very important during the Bonanza days.”
She performs a classical music concert in Virginia City once a year with violin, viola and cello, and plays ragtime concerts both locally and nationally. She is a regular performer at the Bucket of Blood Saloon in Virginia City and the Gold Hill Hotel in Gold Hill.
She said ragtime didn’t become popular until the Comstock was in decline, so she adds popular songs of the era such as Stephen Foster material to her repertoire.
She has played at ragtime festivals in Sacramento and Joplin, Mo, what she calls the benchmark for ragtime players.
Ragtime was the first pop music, she said and along with stride piano and boogie-woogie, it is making a comeback.
She is deep into the history of music on the Comstock.
“There was always entertainment,” she said. “When I moved here, in 1990, there were more pianos per capita than anywhere else. There were 29 saloons and they all had a piano. You don’t see that in Jackson Hole.”
Steele said not only Virginia City, but many towns in Nevada have saloons with pianos. She has played in Belmont, population 12, and in Goldfield, at the Santa Fe Saloon.
Though she is classically trained, and has focused on historically significant genres, she is no music snob.
“Being an old hippie, I love old rock and roll,” she said. “When I got in the Guinness Book, I played 100 Beatles’ songs from memory.”
Besides her regular gigs on the Comstock, Steele plays around Nevada and Northern California, including Pier 23 in San Francisco and will perform Jan. 31 at the Bartley Ranch, at the “Come in from the Cold” shows.
In addition to music, climbing and history, she loves to add humor to her show, and sometimes plays the piano backward, while lying on the bench.
“The older I get, the zanier I get,” she said. “With all the stuff that goes on in the world, it’s really great to have stuff where you laugh about things. Besides, ragtime is meant to be fun, it was never meant to be serious.”
Contact reporter Karen Woodmansee at email@example.com or call 881-7351.