A person sitting at a piano smiles as filtered sunlight beams through.

Close bonds, a love for music and an ugly cry: How a piano sent a graduate off on the right note

Allendale High School student Ryan Brandon sat down at a piano for his regular lesson at a Northeast Grand Rapids instrument and music store, his fingers gracefully dancing across the keys and instantly filling the room with beautiful sound.

That beautiful sound from the restored baby grand piano was made possible by some Grand Valley music students, including a talented piano technician, who helped Mei Lin Wooden, '23, launch her career. A heartwarming video hints at the depth of the story behind the gift.

On this day in her studio, Wooden sat next to Brandon on the bench and encouraged him to focus on those dancing fingers. She talked about what the thumb should be doing, and the pinkie. And she explained how to position the wrist while breaking down what he was playing into parts.

Brandon, who plans to study piano performance in college, said Wooden has been particularly helpful in refining his technique.

Two people sit on a bench before a piano. One person smiles while talking to the other.
A closeup of piano keys shows one hand from each of two people playing the keys.
Mei Lin Wooden works with high school student Ryan Brandon during a lesson.

"I was self taught for a long time," Brandon said. "So going into these lessons, there were a lot of habits that needed to be deprogrammed."

For Wooden, these lessons represent a career goal achieved after earning her Grand Valley degree. But the piano represents even more: a rebirth of musical passion, a tight-knit group of students, a deep appreciation for a mentor and a piano-gifting gesture paid forward.

Wooden was leader of the piano students in the fall semester, serving as a sounding board and someone who kept an eye on how the students were doing. This influence came during a time of rejuvenation for Wooden, who said she had experienced burnout that drained her love of music.

Watch Mei Lin Wooden's story, including the moment she found out about the gifted piano

A summer retreat using funds from the Thomas J. and Marcia J. Haas Endowment for the Performing Arts led to a connection with a professor whom she said transformed her outlook, giving her the energy to finish her degree in the fall.

"He taught me that music does not have to be panic filled, it doesn't have to be filled with terror or perfectionism, but that it's filled with so much joy," Wooden said.

Wooden said she had been upset that she needed an extra semester to finish her degree, and sought a sign that it happened for a reason. The students she ended up bonding with answered that question.

She compared her practice room to "Grand Central Station" as students stopped by and she doled out both support and snacks. Lydia Seaver, a senior majoring in piano performance, said the students started a group text without Wooden to brainstorm a graduation gift.

"And I mean, I thought a gift basket, but we like to go big or go home. So we wanted to do something a little more extravagant," Seaver said.


The back of a student is seen and the arm of a piano teacher, pen in hand, gesturing toward a music book.

They originally wanted to bring in the professor from the summer retreat, but his schedule was full. Sam Bergman, a first-year computer science and piano performance student, then had another idea: How about a piano for Wooden's music lessons?

Bergman had learned the skills in his youth to become a piano technician. And Bergman said the person who taught those skills had gifted pianos to him to provide upgrades as Bergman's musical skills advanced.

"It was kind of in the back of my mind already," Bergman said. "We weren't entirely sure the idea would work to give someone a piano for graduation."

Bergman found a piano on Facebook Marketplace and checked it out to see if he could get it into shape, which he determined he could.

Now, how to surprise Wooden with her gifted musical instrument at a gathering after a recital? This wasn't a flute. Transporting a piano presents logistical challenges that include coordinating a trailer, equipment and enough people to move it, and that's before trying to carefully maneuver the hulking instrument into a room. 

A person seen through the opened top of a baby grand piano peers at a music book.

So they opted instead to present her with a card indicating her gift, and to have Bergman use his phone to show a video of him playing her recital pieces on the piano.

And that moment led to the feel-good video, shot by Sookkyung Cho, associate professor of piano, who said she didn't know about the surprise until that moment. She called the gesture "very special" and noted that the piano studio vibe among the students that semester was also special.

"I just started ugly crying and I can sense Dr. Cho just zooming in and it was such a sweet moment," said Wooden, adding, "It was just so special and it's something I'm just going to treasure forever as a gift from my last semester at Grand Valley."


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