Spaces: The Baldwin Grand

The Baldwin Grand piano at the student center provides an open invitation to sit and play a spell.

Photo by Brandon Martin

Spring 2023
By Tracey Rhoades
Photo and video by Brandon Martin

Home to Rice Coffeehouse, the campus bookstore, Willy’s Pub and KTRU Radio, the Rice Memorial Center also houses a piano that has enticed trained and novice players to tickle the ivories for more than 60 years.

Since the RMC’s opening in 1958, a Baldwin grand piano has enriched the space outside of the Grand Hall, serving as a tribute to Lee Chatham, Rice’s band director from 1922 to 1937. Given by four of his closest friends, the gift was made to remind students then and now of Chatham’s love of music and the personal relationships he forged as the leader of the band. Chatham, known for his enthusiastic and cheerful disposition, also led Lee’s Owls, a beloved orchestra that provided dance music at annual campus events in the 1920s.

While campus traditions have changed over the years, the opportunity for students to express their artistic talents hasn’t. Any given day, passersby might hear an upbeat show tune, the strains of a melodic piano concerto or a beginner playing their variation of “Chopsticks.”

For many, like Joseph Asfouri ’23, an electrical engineering and neuroscience major, the now well-played piano is a frequent stop between classes. “What keeps me coming back to play are the new people I meet every time,” Asfouri said, “either pianists themselves or classical music lovers who walk up and ask me to play a certain piece or who start a conversation about their connection to the music.”

As he grew older, Asfouri, who took piano lessons from a local music school as a child, stopped playing regularly. But once at Rice, he began relearning Chopin, Liszt and Rachmaninoff, practicing on an electronic piano as a way to refresh from his daily studies.

“I find the phenomenon of playing challenging piano pieces from memory to be extremely fascinating from a neuroscientific perspective — how the neuromuscular system can store and execute such complicated sequences of activity without much conscious input,” he said. “This fascination is part of what motivates my interest in understanding the brain and what makes learning and playing new piano pieces so thrilling and kind of addictive.”

In February, Asfouri, also a member of Rice’s student-led club crew team, was awarded the prestigious Churchill Scholarship for a year of independent study at the University of Cambridge. Given annually to only 18 graduating college students in the U.S., Asfouri is only the second Rice student in almost 30 years to earn the scholarship. This fall, he will further the neuroengineering research he’s currently working on in the labs of Jacob Robinson of Rice’s BioScience Research Collaborative and other researchers at the University of Washington, Cornell Medicine and Baylor College of Medicine. See the video below for more on Asfouri.