Hamilton, Ohio – A Steinway grand piano rests under a quilted cover in the corner of the first-floor art gallery of the Fitton Center.
Periodically people pop in, peel off the cover and play.
People like Darren Gnitke.
“My first experience with the piano was seventh or eighth grade through an old music teacher,” he said. “Honestly, I thought she was a grumpy old lady, but she’s turned into a good friend and mentor for me.”
That initial exposure consisted of the teacher playing the band America’s hit song “Horse With No Name” and allowing Gnitke and a classmate to plunk around on the keyboard. The grump factor appeared when the rest of the class misbehaved and playing privileges quickly disappeared.
With the opportunity to play all but gone, Gnitke’s desire left, too.
At least for a while.
Maybe not coincidentally, Gnitke finished high school at the Fitton Center in 2011 when it housed Options Academy of the Arts. By then the desire returned and he taught himself to play.
“I started listening to Yanni and Vangelis and they really inspired me,” he said. “I listened more to how they played than what they played. I tried to create my own sound off their inspiration.”
After graduation, Gnitke went to trade school and learned welding. He later enlisted in the Air National Guard, where he does plumbing work as part of a civil engineering squad. He’s also now in school at the University of Cincinnati, studying entrepreneurship.
“I like to consider myself a dirt-poor Elon Musk,” he said with a chuckle. “I have a lot of ideas.”
The piano remains a release.
“Music is a good escape,” he said. “It’s very healing.”
Now when Gnitke visits the Fitton Center, it’s to polish and practice one of his own compositions. Lately he’s been working on half a dozen songs he plans to debut publicly June 28 at the Music Café June 28 at Miami University Downtown Hamilton. It’s a free showcase for area musicians running from 7 to 9 p.m.
Among the tunes he intends to play when he hits the stage – Gnitke’s slot on the bill is at about 8:20 p.m. - is the first piece he ever wrote.
“It’s called ‘Of All the Rest,’” Gnitke said. “It was inspired by a poem my two-times great grandfather wrote and used for his wedding vow. I tried to reflect that feeling of a young man making a commitment to the woman he loves.”
He dedicates another song – “Memories” – to his late father, while the geography of a well-known supernatural legend inspired “The Plague of Carpathia.”
“I just like to play,” Gnitke said. “I can express myself.” The Fitton Center galleries – and the piano within – are free and open to the public from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Fridays.
The Fitton Center for Creative Arts is located at 101 S. Monument Avenue on the Riverfront in downtown Hamilton, Ohio.