INTERLOCHEN — Michael Coonrod’s just glad it wasn’t his thumb.
The seasoned pianist and Interlochen Center for the Arts instructor’s career hit a bump in May 2015 when he lost a finger — the fourth digit of his right hand — in a hiking accident.
It hasn’t kept his remaining nine off the black and white keys, though.
“(That finger’s) mostly expendable — if you lose a thumb or a fifth finger, I don’t know what you’d do,” Coonrod said. “I still can teach and I still play.”
The pianist’s family, friends and colleagues supported him through the ordeal by helping him commission a left hand-focused concerto — something Coonrod could play, 10 fingers or nine.
He debuts the work, “Concerto for Piano, Left Hand,” with the Traverse Symphony Orchestra on Sunday after months of fundraising and then composing by renowned talent Kenji Bunch.
“It’s a jazzy, rhythmic concerto — it’s delightful to listen to,” said Gary Gatzke, TSO interim executive director.
The concert begins at 3 p.m. at Interlochen’s Corson Auditorium. Orchestra Music Director Kevin Rhodes conducts the performance, which features Coonrod’s piece and portions of two Beethoven concertos, “Egmont” and “Eroica.”
Coonrod says he’s eager to play the longtime-coming piece.
The instructor often hosts dinners and outings with Interlochen's boarding school students, and eagerly joined when one group suggested a mid-May hike near the school’s wooded property a few springs ago.
The group encountered a barbed wire-topped fence, and Coonrod scaled it to help the younger hikers over. An oft-worn ring gifted by Coonrod’s father snagged along the wires, and he found the drop on the other side a near-foot steeper than anticipated.
The catch ripped skin and muscle from Coonrod’s finger. The shock hit immediately.
“I knew it was badly injured — I just wrapped it in my glove,” he said.
Coonrod’s students found a gap in the fence and helped their teacher through, hooking under each of his arms to lead him to the car. His wife drove them to the hospital.
Coonrod didn’t stay long in the ER. Doctors immediately transferred him to Ann Arbor via helicopter — surgeons there, they hoped, might save the finger with a new, experimental surgery.
But — after days of treatment from leeches to heated balloons — it failed.
Doctors amputated Coonrod’s ring finger during a Friday surgery.
Family and friends proved more concerned than the pianist. He was eager to lose the hospital gown and make it to his students’ graduation ceremony — a wish granted, as he caught the tail end of the ceremony.
He never considered giving up.
“When you go into music, you have to love it so much — you have to eat, sleep. breath it, day and night,” Coonrod said.
It took some time to adapt to the injury, but Coonrod is able to compensate by using other fingers to cover the notes or skipping a note in a few chords.
“What was 2-3-4-5 is now, for me, 2-3-1-2-3,” he said. “I’m just glad it was me and not a student — a student, to lose a finger on my watch, would’ve been devastating to me.”
News of the beloved pianist’s accident brought horror to his friends — most of them, like Susan Day, musicians themselves. The incident left her restless.
“I wasn’t able to sleep that night — I pondered what could possibly be done to make the situation less horrible,” she said. “We didn’t know what the condition of his right hand altogether was going to be.”
Cards nor flowers came to mind. Instead, Day and her husband, a fellow pianist and Interlochen instructor, organized a GoFundMe.com page and reached out to friends, colleagues and alumni for donations.
They would commission a piece for Coonrod — one he could play entirely with his left hand.
The funds came easy, and the Days presented the news at Coonrod’s 65th birthday, just weeks after the accident.
Bunch was Coonrod’s first choice to compose, though a backlog of work on the composer’s end meant the project would take a while. The piece came to completion in August 2018.
Coonrod is eager to perform it — especially because Bunch will be in the crowd. More exciting than the concert, though, is the distribution of the piece that comes after.
“How elegant to do something not just for me but for the whole world of pianists,” he said. “It’s just very, very fulfilling to see this come to fruition.”