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Charlotte students surprise choir director with baby grand

By Elisabeth Arriero
earriero@charlotteobserver.com

South Mecklenburg High School senior Louis Senay knew that he didn’t have much time – maybe an hour tops.

That’s how long choral music department director Marc Setzer would be distracted conducting the men’s and women’s ensembles at the spring concert May 23.

Senay feverishly assembled a baby grand piano in the choir room before heading to the auditorium to perform with the chamber choir.

Then came the big reveal.

Senay stood on stage with three other senior choir leaders.

You’ve done so much for us that we wanted to show you how much we appreciate you, they said. Waiting for you right now in the choir room is a beautiful antique baby grand piano, they added.

“Boom. The crowd goes wild. It was amazing,” said Senay. “He was in awe. His jaw just dropped.”

Randy Jones, Senay’s private piano instructor, gave the piano to students for a minimal amount when he heard of Setzer’s daily struggle.

“Louis was talking about how badly he felt for his choir director because he was always straining himself to accompany and play for the choir,” said Jones.

Setzer’s classroom only has upright pianos and keyboards. And if the students were to see him, he had to stand up to play.

It caused a lot of back problems, said Setzer, who has taught at South Mecklenburg for 34 years.

Plus, a lot of the choir’s pianos were older and out of tune. And while he knew that a baby grand piano would offer richer and longer sounds, Setzer’s department did not have the money to purchase one.

“He’s already such a good director with (out-of-tune pianos), imagine how amazing he would be on that,” Senay said.

So when it came time for the senior class to get Setzer a gift (as they do every year), Senay suggested they mobilize the underclassman to help get him a memorable and useful gift.

Jones told Senay that he would give the circa 1920s Lansing piano to him for $500 – the cost to pay for the repairs Jones had already made.

Ivory key pianos like this one generally sell for more than $3,000 – even on eBay.

“This is a higher-end piano with quality sound,” said Jones. “But it was too big for my studio space.”

The money was raised by collecting $5 from students in the various choir classes and using $100 from choir boosters.

Keeping such a large instrument a secret was “a huge operation” and required precise execution, Senay said.

Jones helped him break down the piano to move it in a U-Haul and the piano was later re-assembled in the choir room at South Meck.

Setzer, 57, said he was “blown away” by the gift and really “touched.”

He was especially excited about the antique mustard-yellow cushion bench that came with the piano.

“The bench is one of the highlights,” said Setzer. “It’s an amazingly comfortable bench. This is going to encourage me to sit.”

He plans to keep the piano in the choir room so that future students can practice on a real piano.

“This is good for practicing because it’s touch sensitive,” he said. “They can learn how to play with all shades and nuisances.”

Principal Maureen Furr said she couldn’t think of anybody more worthy of such an honor.

“Marc is an extraordinary musician and teacher and his legacy at South Mecklenburg is unmatched,” she said.

Furr’s not the only one to have noticed. Setzer won the Choral Director of the Year award from the N.C. Music Educators Association in 2013.

Clearly Setzer is special, Senay said. After all, he wouldn’t go out of his way to get a baby grand piano for just anybody.

“He brightens your day. He’s the funniest guy you’ll ever meet,” said Senay. “He treats all of his students with so much love and respect. He’s the best choir director I’ve ever had.”

Arriero: 704-804-2637; On Twitter: @earriero
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