Only in a Leap Year

Well, here we are. Through yet another quirk produced by Leap Day, we are six months to the day past the invigorating launch of Sonata of Elsie Lenore on February 9, 2020.

Today is another Sunday afternoon on the prairie. Only in Leap Years would you find this to be so. Six months to the day, same day of the week.

I know. Who would think of something like that?

I do. It’s a quirky attribute of my mind, looking consciously (or subconsciously) for patterns. Now this doesn’t happen to all months, due to differing lengths of various months. But February to August?

Check.

Dates match days of the week up until August 29. Only in a Leap Year.

And only in this particular Leap Year did the intervening months dissolve into obscurity. The pace of our ratrace life slowed and we sheltered at home, away from all but our most intimate contacts. It’s almost like we collectively took a long nap.

It’s time to wake up.

We’re still mired in the consternation of a deadly pandemic. The sun rises and the sun sets. We get aggravated at each other. The ills of our culture are scrutinized under a microscope. We’ve re-evaluated priorities, taken stock of where we’ve been and where we want to be. And we have little clue how to get there.

Take a deep breath.

After watching a time-leap movie last evening, I started wondering, “What if?” What if I could wrinkle up the last six-months in the space-time continuum (thank you, Madeleine L’Engle) and return to February 9?

 

What a day that was! Busy from dawn to dark with “The Last County-Wide Duet Festival,” hosting guest artists, several writer friends, Elsie’s illustrator,

Cover artist, Onalee Nicklin

concert attendees—and then performing.

At the close of the concert, Sonata of Elsie Lenore was available for the first time and I signed copies for forty minutes straight.

That was an exciting launch. But then, after catching my breath, and recuperating from the madness, before I could even consider my next project, COVID hit.

And we slammed into a wall. The world stopped spinning. And we’ve been in limbo since.

Now jump that wrinkle to today. We’re in no better place with COVID than before, and there’s no end in sight. Yet given the auspicious parallels between February 9 and August 9, I decided to revitalize Elsie with a promotion. Perhaps some of you could use a diversion to get your mind off other things. If that’s the case, I invite you to consider taking a break to read Sonata of Elsie Lenore or even Sundrop Sonata if you have yet to do that.

Toward that end, I have taken some difficult steps for someone with my distress for public scrutiny. Just so you know, I set up a brand new author page on Goodreads, (https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/8596325.Ann_Christine_Fell),  revised my Amazon author page, (https://www.amazon.com/author/annchristinefell) and started a Facebook page (Ann Christine Fell, author) devoted to posts about books and the writing process.

I invite you to check each of these. If you find it to your liking, follow one or more of these pages. Those of you who are so inclined can post a review, especially if you think somebody else might enjoy reading the tales.

May each of you stay healthy and evade the notorious virus. I’ll see you when we emerge from this cloud of uncertainty and face our new and improved futures.

Re-Writing Life

What do you do when your first novel receives great reviews, and people urge you to write more? That’s the real test. Last week I listened in on a live interview with Edwin Hill, author of Little Comfort and The Missing Ones. He mentioned how there is a delicious freedom with the first novel—no expectations, no deadline, nobody waiting anxiously for the arrival of the book. The second book presents the real challenge.

For subsequent works, you must write under pressure of expectations. Can I fulfill the requests of readers and maintain integrity with mywriting? Do I have more stories inside, worthy of being shared? How long will it take? And how long will the readers wait patiently for an attempt?

It was definitely a challenge to write a second novel. You’d think, now that I’d done it once, the second novel would be easier. But that was not so. It was hard, writing Sonata of Elsie Lenore.  I wanted to satisfy my readers. I needed another suspenseful tale, utilizing pianos and piano technicians as characters. I wanted to provide readers with another Izzy story.  After all, that was what several readers specifcally asked for.

But Izzy was all storied out. I tried mightily to write Elsie Lenore with Isabel Woods as the protagonist, but it just didn’t work. Maybe she could be the narrator then? That didn’t work either.

The seed of the Elsie story germinated 20 years ago, and was nourished by events since, but there was nothing quite as concrete as the events that wrote themselves in the Sundrop story. I had to introduce new characters, as well as keep the older ones, and it was HARD. It seemed that Elsie Lenore just didn’t want to sprout. Or she did, but the seedling was all twisted and wrong. The story didn’t flow. Even after I had a complete draft, and was re-working the three parts, it wasn’t coming together. I  finally realized it was because this was no longer Izzy’s story. I was trying to make it another Izzy adventure, but this story belonged to someone else. It belonged to Stefano.

And I re-wrote the entire book. Several times.

Elsie Lenore has been through so many re-writes and revisions, I have lost count, but there are 6 different outlines in my computer files. Six major revisions later, Sonata of Elsie Lenore was released–shortly before the world screeched to a halt with the COVID-19 pandemic, and that added a new layer of complication. Everything looks different through a coronavirus lens, but I hope the final product is one that readers will enjoy, as they follow Stefano Valdez from Izzy’s piano shop in Kansas to Cuba and back again. I hope they cheer him on as he grapples with major failures and shortcomings in his personal life.

It’s true that the biggest part of the writing job, is, in fact, revising and re-writing. Polish the prose. Edit for clarity and flow. Do it again and yet again. And when you realize that the story just isn’t working the way you envisioned, you have the prerogative and the privilege to start again. Indeed, more than a prerogative and a privilege, it may be more of an obligation to re-write.

This makes me think of our global situation today. Right now, our society, our culture, and our species own the same prerogative. The same obligation. The pause in life gifted to us by COVID-19 has allowed us to step back and take a look. Things just weren’t working out too well for most people–not to mention most of the living things on this planet. Were they? This is the perfect time to re-write our future. We may not receive such a chance again.

As we move from isolation cautiously back into the social realm, let’s tread carefully, step out in a different direction, and when the path forks, flip a coin and try something different. Only one thing is certain. We can’t go backwards. Forward is the only way to go.

Let’s re-write our future together.

Having Nothing is Living Free, 5

And we come to the end.

It’s hard to come to the end of a magical journey, almost as much in this review a year later as the actual trip. On this date a year ago, I returned home from my voyage to Cuba and my life has never been the same. What did I learn from those few days abroad?

Cuba is a beautiful place. The countryside, the beaches, and the centuries-old architecture possess stunning allure. Indeed, some of the sights are unique to this small island nation.

But most memorable are the people. The histories of both our countries, the US and Cuba, run parallel and continue to tantalize and twist around each other, like sensuous dancers that move synchronously across a dance floor, matching minute moves, but never touching, so close it’s impossible at times to tell which is leading and which is following.

Our local guide pointed out the common traits of the Cuban people—pragmatism, survival skills, resilience, rebelliousness, creativity, passion, motivation and compassion. These characteristics arrived in Cuba with the African slaves and by necessity through 500 years of history were infused into the entire population.

The music and art of Cuba are recognized worldwide. Cubans excel as well in medicine and medical research. This small country is highly educated with an admirable literacy rate. Talented people devote their lives to advancements in their various fields.

When I was young, five decades ago, almost everywhere I traveled with my parents we found trinkets and cheap souvenirs stamped with the words “Made in Japan.” It was common knowledge that anything manufactured in Japan was cheap, substandard, and not durable.

That is not the case today! Products in the world market today which originate in Japan are highly regarded as top quality items. What brought about this change? A system which relied on input from the Japanese people. Ideas were prized and when they worked together, the people pulled their image to the top of a pyramid of quality.

It was the people who mattered.

Though a beautiful place, Cuba has many problems. My biggest impression from the tour was that her people are her richest resource. Working together, they will find answers to their many problems.

Given the talent, education, resilience and determination evident in the people I met, I have confidence they possess what it takes to solve the problems that plague Cuba.

If only we would allow them to do that.

There is a deep chasm that separates the way Cuban people relate to visitors—even visitors from the US—and the way our respective governments relate to each other. Sadly People-to-People relate much differently than Government-to-Government. Traveling can teach a traveler much, like the fact that there are multiple sides to every historical event. No country, people, or system of government is totally good, or totally bad. We should accept what works for the good, embrace change, encourage each other, and move forward together. After all, in light of the current global coronavirus pandemic, it may well be that Cuba’s medical community will discover the answer. We need their friendship as much as they need ours.

May our future together as neighbors and friends be bright.

 

 

Having Nothing is Living Free, 4

Havana!

The next few days we immersed ourselves in the life and times of Havana, Cuba. Our first stop as we entered the city was the fortress of La Cabana. From there, we got our first views of the Havana skyline, and the harbor that various nationalities have lusted over for 500 years.

It was a surprise to realize that we parked above and walked over the entrance to a tunnel that ran beneath the entire harbor, taking traffic from one side to the other. I saw cars entering, but had no idea what I was looking at until the bus turned onto this road and we drove The Tunnel. From the other side, we caught a glimpse of the opposite shore, one we’d see often in the next few days. There were fortresses on both sides of the harbor entrance to protect early Havana from pirates.

We revisited places along the harbor several times on our driving tours. It was fascinating to see the variety of warehouses, ships, and people involved in the daily life of the harbor. One particularly interesting visit was to a cigar factory which took harvested tobacco shipped in on trains and produced some of the renowned Cuban cigars. Not that I’m a smoker, but I had several requests to bring back samples, so it was interesting to learn about this part of Cuban life, history, and trade.

 

Our accomodations in Havana were at Hotel Nacional de Cuba. This hotel is renowned for attracting world famous visitors, and for good reason. Its opulence is evident in every detail.

Exploration of four historic plazas in Havana, (Plaza de la Catedral, Plaza Vieja, Plaza de San Francisco de Asis, and Plaza de Armas) filled a whole day, as well as visits to art shops and museums and excellent cuisine at some local paladar restaurants.

Of course we had to see Ernest Hemingway’s famous house.

Spread over several acres, the grounds included his boat in dry dock, a dry swimming pool, landscaped gardens, and an observatory tower. Climb the stairs and view his room at the top, more books and a telescope. Turn around and look out over Havana.

We visited Colon Cemetery, at least a small portion of it, since it is the 4th largest cemetery in the world. The architecture and sculpted tombs inside present a picture into ages past. Interestingly, the name Colon refers to Christopher Colombus who actually anchored on a coastline of Cuba in 1492, not North America.

And we couldn’t leave Cuba without a ride in a Classic Automobile caravan. (I know this is what you’ve been waiting for. . .) We were able to view much of Havana that our bus would not have been able to get through, from fancy housing districts, to beautiful parks. And we ended up driving along the Malecon Boulevard back to Hotel Nacional.

A walk along the Malecon that evening was in order, to experience the special aura that calls to Cubans everywhere.

As the sun sets over the Havana skyline, it’s a challenge to distill all the impressions into something meaningful to take home, but the journey is drawing to a close.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Having Nothing is Living Free, 3

(The third part of a series recapping my 2019 tour of Cuba which helped refine scenes in the new Sonata of Elsie Lenore, another piano novel-of-suspense featuring Cuban--and Kansas--pianos and musicians.)

From Cienfuegos we took a day trip cross-country to Trinidad, a historic colonial city, ca 1514. On the UNESCO world heritage list, downtown Trinidad offers a walking experience much as the residents in the 16th century would have found.

Very rough cobblestone streets paved with rounded fist-sized stones set into the hillside and multi-storied buildings with tile roofs were typical in Trinidad.

My favorite excursion was ascending the bell tower of an old monastery, no longer used as such.

The views across the surrounding terrain were extraordinary.

Adding to our complementary cocktail list, in Trinidad we twice enjoyed drinks that we were told were peculiar to that city—the canchanchara (Fizzy with lime, honey, and rum over ice. Served in a special goblet.)

On the return trip to Cienfuegos, I saw things I’d missed before.

Many fields and yards were fenced by prickly cactus—the kind my father had that grew fast with very sharp and prolific needles.

I suspect it was trimmed with machetes. Densely grown it would make an effective barrier to keep in livestock like piglets or chickens. It would also keep out unwanted intruders.

The following morning we packed up again for our last cross-country journey. We headed east from Cienfuegos along the Caribbean coast.

We stopped at the Playa Giron (“Bay of Pigs”) museum and learned about that effort from the Cuban perspective. The US planned invasion failed due to the fact that the plan was leaked and printed in the New York Times; the expected assistance from the locals did not materialize because life for the rural folks had already become much better than it was before the revolution; and the expected assistance from the US Air Force never came. The invasion failed and the Cuban revolution stood.

We drove along the coast of the bay to a cluster of cabins and businesses. During our lunch there, a park ranger told us about the Zapata Park Conservation efforts, and afterward we enjoyed a walk on the beach or a dip in the bay.

Twenty-three percent of Cuba is protected from development and Zapata National Park is the biggest and oldest of Cuba’s natural sanctuaries, founded in 1937. The ranger explained its mission: Conservation, Preservation, and Protection. There are over 5000 square km in this preserve, including swamp, coastline, bay area, and coral reefs. Cuban and American crocodiles interbreed here and have developed a new intermediary species. Five hundred green and red Cuban parrots were released to the wild. A thriving coral reef is preserved in the bay itself.

There are 52 animal species unique to Cuba, including three species of tree rats.

Zapata is the surname of the owner of the land with Spanish ancestry, from the 16th century. It does not refer to the shoe shape of the area, or the translation of the word, “shoe.”

From there we traveled on to Havana. Closer to the city, the cactus fences changed to stone fences.

The narrow road became a 6-lane highway, though traffic was still light. Solitary people walked at random places along the road, tended grazing livestock in the roadside ditches, or rested in the shade.

A modern and bustling city, Havana presented a marked contrast to the easy-going countryside we had experienced to this point.

Having Nothing is Living Free, 2

(The second part of a series recapping my tour of Cuba which helped refine scenes in the new Sonata of Elsie Lenore, another piano novel of suspense featuring Cuban--and Kansas--pianos and musicians.)

Los Caneyes hotel was unique in my experience. Named for some of the aboriginal inhabitants of Cuba, the Caney people, the lodgings spread across several acres. Footpaths connected buildings that housed about four suites each, as well as smaller cabins that were single rooms. My room was one of these small cabins with twin beds, an air conditioner with Celcius degrees, remotely operated, a shower (no tub), and an ironing board with an umbrella hanging on it. The cabin stood beside a solar water heater set between two other cabins. I noticed my water was hot even early in the morning. Each structure in the facility was topped with palm-thatched roofs.

We dined in style with a buffet dinner. At dinner, a young man played clarinet continually, quite well, good old familiar show tunes. Later in the evening, there was a fashion show around the outdoor pool.

Tall, long-legged, black Cuban girls in 7-inch stiletto heels paraded around the pool area in swim and beach wear, as well as one young man for men’s beach fashions.

At the far end of the pool, a band struck up tunes—fully live tonight with guitar players, singer, uke, banjo, maybe a keyboard, drums. They performed long after I retired for the night.

The next morning I woke early—before 4:00, and rested until the alarm went off on my phone. Though it was still dark out, birds chirped and roosters crowed. It sounded like small bantams. I packed my bags and set off on an early morning walk. The lodgings at Los Caneyes were fascinating with all the thatched roofs. Most of the group buildings had a central courtyard around a statue of some figure significant in aboriginal stories, or perhaps Santeria saints.

There were several dead tree trunks with faces carved in them.

Ornamental plants, including a variety that I have enjoyed in my own home since I was in grade school, provided attractive landscaping. Blooming bushes, mimosa trees, song birds, plants growing out of tree stumps, palm trees, begonias, bougainvillea, and ficus trees with massive exposed roots lined the paths.

After breakfast, we loaded the bus and headed into Santa Clara. Our first stop was the Che Guevara monument. It was a lovely place, very tidy, free of charge, and our guide filled us in on Che’s story, which ended badly at the hands of a US CIA sting operation in Bolivia several years after the revolution.

Che (Ernesto) was born in Argentina and educated as a medical doctor. As a young man he traveled through much of Latin American, which changed his perspective on life. He met Fidel Castro in Mexico and joined the Cuban revolution to free the people from tyranny. A guerilla commander as well as a physician, he orchestrated the conquest of an armored train, derailing it in Santa Clara and acquiring the arms inside. That was a turning point in the revolution.

He laid siege to a hotel in downtown Santa Clara, and bullet strikes are preserved on that building where many of Batista’s officers sought refuge. Two days later they surrendered, having run out of ammunition. This was a significant victory for the rebels, the beginning of the end for Batista.

Around the square below the historic hotel, a goat pulled a cart for children’s rides. At a nearby club for Abuelos (grandparents) they danced and played games, told us the story of fan language, used by young women to signal young men at dances, under the watchful eyes of chaperones.

We drove to the airport to fetch one lady’s luggage that had been lost and on to Cienfuegos over rough pavement, swaying back and forth.

In Cienfuegos, we attended a string orchestral concert by Concerto Sur Cienfuegos that was delightful with a variety of classical, popular, and Cuban compositions. Before it was done, they had us all up and dancing with their dance leader.

We headed back along the coast to our hotel in downtown Cienfuegos where dinner was served in the rooftop restaurant with windows and balcony door open.

Another ensemble provided music from the indoor balcony in the dining room.

Having Nothing is Living Free, 1

In early March, 2019, I flew to Miami for the first time in my life where I met the rest of a tour group bound for Cuba the next day. Eight of us in the group took a tour with Mario, a Cuban-American bus driver, to see downtown Little Havana, a rough and tumble place. He bought Cuban coffee shots for those who wanted to try it from an outdoor café and we walked along the streets, finally arriving at a Cuban pub for a first experience with mojitos– and very loud salsa music. It was interesting to see the art hung around, even from the ceiling and watch young (or not so young) dancers. Though the lead vocalist, a woman from Puerto Rico, and  the percussionist were live, the main melody was a recording, so I would didn’t agree that it was live music. Toward the end of our stay, a guy joined in on the previously silent grand piano. Alas, the music volume was so cranked up, the piano was still unheard. I had not remembered earplugs, but started carrying them with me everywhere I went. However, I never needed them again. Cuban street music and performed music is genuinely live and is not limited to fortissimo volume.


A mural nearby showed some black girls in white, representing a weekly Sunday ritual in Havana, a silent protest against the communists in Havana.

The next day our group caught a flight to Santa Clara, Cuba. Our tour was a People-to-People tour sponsored by Road Scholar. I didn’t know what to expect, but I was ready for anything, to soak up the experience as research for the scenes from Sonata of Elsie Lenore that are set in Cuba. 

My first view of Cuba from the airplane was through clouds, but I identified agricultural fields, and a field of solar panels. The time was 4:45 pm EST. We landed at the Santa Clara airport* at 4:55, de-planed down a set of stairs and walked to the airport door. My first step in Cuba occurred at 5:02 pm.

It was a long day of waiting for a little bit of travel, but we had finally arrived and worked our way through Cuban customs. One lady’s checked bag was lost, but the rest of us gathered our bags, met our Cuban Guide Ilen (pronounced “Elaine”) headed to the waiting bus where we met our bus driver, Ernesto. Our first views along the road included horse-drawn wagons, rough dwellings, banana, guava, and maybe tobacco fields, and lots of palm trees. Trash was piled at intervals in the roadside ditches, or in waterways. Dogs scratched through the refuse. A dead dog lay in one ditch, with vultures gathering.

Then we arrived at our lodging, Los Caneyes, and WOW!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*In the last few months travel to Cuba has been restricted only to the Havana airport. Americans today would not be able to duplicate the itinerary we enjoyed.

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Chapter One

LENA VALDEZ CRINGED when her husband hammered the Steinway piano lid with his fist.

His rage growing, Enrique’s knuckle bones threatened to burst through his skin. “I told you,” he said, “no more of this Lecuona crap. Do the jazz. Tonight we want the best Cuban jazz.” The youngest of the three Diaz brothers punctuated every other syllable with his fist until the piano’s heavy bass strings vibrated with a rising cacophony.

She shrank from every blow.

“Understand?” he yelled.

, Enrique,” she said.

“Get to the jazz. I’m counting on you tonight. ¿Comprendes?

She looked down, her fingers rubbing the familiar ivory ridges of the piano keys.

“¿Lena?” he said.

She felt rather than saw his arm rise and spoke with haste. “Please, Enrique. Don’t hit the piano.”

“Jazz then. Hear me?”

She nodded. Yes, she heard him. How could she not? She could hardly recall a time he spoke to her without yelling. “, I will play jazz.”

“One hour. Then we dress for the show. No more Lecuona.”

She flexed her fingers, took a deep breath, and leaned into the keys. A recent island melody by Jorge Marin swelled from the piano. Swinging with the beat, Enrique danced out the door of the Caribbean Breeze, a nightclub in New Orleans.

Her hands flew over the keys as she coaxed melodious rhythms from the worn Steinway. It wasn’t that she hated jazz. After all, jazz expressed Cuba’s heart and soul. It sang of the courage and beauty of her countrymen. She loved jazz, but she loved classics more and she needed Lecuona right now. Their mother raised her and her brother on Lecuona, embracing classical Cuban tradition.

Lena completed the Marin number and stifled a sob.

“You okay Señorita?” Roberto, the bartender and manager of the nightclub, peeked in from a back room.

She nodded. “I will be fine.”

“I heard some yelling,” he said and cocked his head, inviting her to say more.

She forced a laugh. “Enrique. He’s always yelling,” she explained away the outburst. “It will be fine.”

“If you’re sure.”

She met his gaze with a grateful nod.

He turned back into the storage room. She waited a moment, gathering her nerve, her fingers silent on the piano keys. In a timid voice, she said, “Roberto?”

When he didn’t respond, she tried again, louder. “Roberto?”

He stuck his head through the swinging door again. “You say something?”

“I just wondered if you would tell me where I could mail a postal card.” She fished a postcard from her handbag.

“Sending greetings from good old New Orleans?” he said with a smile.

Sí. I want to contact my brother.”

“Stefano? How is he anyway? I heard he’d tied the knot with a beauty from up north somewhere.”

She nodded. “I just want to let him know I am here. Where could I mail the card?”

He extended his hand. “Leave it with me. I’ll make sure it goes out tomorrow.”

Gracias, Roberto.”

The bartender disappeared into the back room with her card. Lena took a deep breath before she continued her rehearsal. If only Stefano would meet her here. Would he even get the postcard in time? He didn’t know she was booked at the Caribbean Breeze, their old favorite nightclub. Maybe he wouldn’t even believe she was here, set to perform on Mama’s piano, “Elsie Lenore.” He sure didn’t know she’d married into a family of drug smugglers or that she was miserable.

He didn’t know.

She launched into another Marin number. At its close, she whispered into the keys, “Elsie—Elsie, what will I do?”

Unexpectedly, her mother’s voice whispered in her mind. “We do what we must.”

In a flash of recollection she visualized the lewd sneer of her former stepfather as he appraised her youthful body and her mother stepping between them— “Not my daughter, you bastard!” Her mother had split up with that man before the next week passed.

A year later a new gentle suitor presented her mother with the same Steinway she’d lost after the Revolution. A gift from her father when she was young, she had fondly dubbed the piano Elsie Lenore. It was offered as a wedding gift for the woman he’d loved all his life and Lena’s mother could not refuse his proposal. Lena and Stefano had grown to love that piano as much as their mother did.

Her mother’s voice whispered again. We do what we must.

“Yes, we do.” Lena’s hands teased the keys as she pondered her limited options. Elsie Lenore and her brother Stefano offered one thin thread of hope. Surely he would understand. He had to.

Her fingers caressed the keys and cajoled an Afro-Cuban piece from the belly of the piano. The melody grew, and then waned. She dropped her left hand and allowed her right hand to sketch a rhythmic melody up the keys as she diverted her left hand to the piano case.

Following the melodic sequence, she ran her fingertips to the treble end of the mahogany trim at her waist and pried upward. With a full-keyboard glissando, she moved to the bass end and inched up the trim until the keyslip was free of its mounting screws. She placed it across the music desk without the slightest click.

The music soared again when her left hand joined in. She strummed repeated staccato chords, lifted her hands at the finale, and froze, listening.

Silencio.

Roberto must have gone out for a few moments. Nobody remained inside the club.

She retrieved a set of dining utensils and a paper napkin from the nearest table and spread the napkin beneath the bass keys. Slipping the knife tip underneath a key, she scraped against the key frame, teasing a fine white dust to the edge. She repeated the process under four keys, and scraped the powder onto the napkin. Tossing the knife to the floor, she lifted the napkin’s corners, cradled the powder into its middle, and with a sigh folded it into a tiny envelope. Her brother would have been proud to know she’d learned some intricacies of piano construction. She, for her part, was grateful for his fascination with the technical side of the instrument.

Gracias, Stefano,” she whispered.

She tucked the parcel securely into her cleavage, replaced the trim, and lost herself in the music.

Will Stefano get the postcard? What did she write to her brother? What exactly did she decide she must do? What’s the white powder she collected from the piano? Find the answers: Sonata of Elsie Lenore premiering today at the 2020 Keyboard Duet Festival.

A Cycle of Leap Years

2004

Twenty-eight years ago, a new friend and piano client told me about the county-wide duet festival. She invited me to play with her in that 1992 event and I had a blast. We diligently practiced the two duets chosen for the first of two adult groups. On the weekend of the festival, we met for a group rehearsal at the county’s junior college. Twenty home-sized upright pianos stood in a scattered array on the gymnasium floor at the college. We chose one, watched the conductor give the downbeat and joined the piano ensemble in one of the most memorable experiences of my life.

I had played piano since age 7, and was involved in annual recitals, 4-H Day competitions, and accompanying school musicals, but never had I played in a piano band such as this. The feat of tuning those twenty pianos for the Sunday afternoon performance was mind-boggling to contemplate, not to mention moving all of them. Twice.

2000

The 1992 Keyboard Piano Duet Festival changed my life. I enjoyed it so much I wanted my own children, and my other students, to have this experience, so I joined the county’s music teacher association. Every year we hosted a group event, with the duet festival every four years. This just happened to coincide with Leap Year. Every Leap Year since 1992, I have helped choose duets for seven progressive skill levels, from the earliest beginner to advanced adult groups. Our association has cooperated with the college, local music stores, and other music clubs, to put on a duet festival every four years.

2000

However, not since 1992 has the festival been held in the gym. And in 1996 as well as each event since, the genuine acoustic pianos were replaced by electronic keyboards. But the students and adult pianists of Cowley County have enjoyed playing duets every Leap Year in a monster piano concert.

This year, on February 9, 2020, at 6:00 pm, we proudly hold The Last Duet Festival on the auditorium stage at Cowley College. The planning committee has dwindled from an association of a dozen active members, to three. Conflicting events from different towns presented obstacle after obstacle that made preparations increasingly difficult to the point that we aging teachers realized we could not do this again in another four years.

2008

It is fitting to conclude the long-standing tradition this year, 28 years since my first duet festival. Leap Years cycle every 28 years and this is the very first year since my debut in the duet event where the calendar days match the days of the week all year long. This is the very first year since 1992 when Leap Day is on a Saturday. The intervening Leap Years cycled randomly through the other days of the week—Thursday in 1996, Tuesday in 2000, Sunday in 2004, Friday in 2008, Wednesday in 2012, and Monday in 2016. Now we’re back to Saturday. It will be 2048 before this calendar repeats itself day-for-day.

To conclude the tradition, we have planned a few special treats. This year, for the first time ever, we will use the stage concert Steinway along with the Clavinovas. My partner from 1992 is playing again, with her daughter. My partner this year is a young man in his 28th year on Earth. Born in Havana, Cuba in 1992, David Pérez is currently working toward a graduate degree in organ performance at Wichita State University. It will be awesome to have this classically trained Cuban master musician play with the local students.

Many of the duets we selected this year were featured in previous festivals. All pianists who choose to do so will be invited to help conclude the program with Walnut River Rag, a duet we commissioned from composer Melody Bober for the 2008 festival.

There will be tables set up in the lobby for an autograph party afterward. Student performers in this memorable event will be invited to autograph programs. I hope they all trade signatures with me.

By special request, my new piano suspense novel Sonata of Elsie Lenore, will premiere to the public after the last note of Walnut River Rag has died away.

2020

Folks can meet the artist who designed the cover for the book, Onalee Nicklin, as well as the Cuban keyboard artist David Pérez.

If you have the means to get there, you won’t want to miss this fantastic event. Brown Theater, Cowley College, Arkansas City, Kansas. Sunday, February 9, 2020, 6:00 pm.

See you there!

2004

 

Launching a New Book

The year I completed my examinations process to become a registered piano technician, a New Yorker named Ben Treuhaft attended the national piano convention. Treuhaft campaigned through the nineties for donations of pianos, repair parts, and technician service to upgrade the condition of Cuba’s musical instruments. He made a plea at the convention for help with the project called “Send a Piana to Havana.” After the Soviet Union pulled out of Cuba, people and their instruments suffered due to the lack of supplies for all kinds of pursuits.

I contacted Mr. Treuhaft to offer help. Several months later, he brought a beautiful and talented Cuban pianist on tour across the country and she played an amazing concert here, at the local college. The sample CD of her recordings that arrived with promotional material for the tour has remained a favorite disc in my collection. Her appearance in my hometown planted the seed which 20 years later has blossomed into the fictional suspense novel Sonata of Elsie Lenore.

I’ve been asked to officially launch Elsie Lenore at a county-wide monster piano concert February 9. The quadrennial event serves as a fund-raiser for music scholarships at Cowley College. The invitation to make Sonata of Elsie Lenore part of the 2020 Keyboard Duet Festival surpasses anything I could have dreamed. Even better, we’ll have another professional Cuban pianist joining the county’s piano students at this event.

Last year at this time, I was scrambling to prepare for a big adventure to Cuba. I made lists of things to bring, sorted clothing and supplies, checked everything multiple times, and packed my bags. The first week of March, I joined a group of strangers from across the US in Miami and we toured Cuba together. The day before I left, I posted a short note to my Facebook page.

“Getting ready for a big adventure! Nail-biting nervous to be heading out with a group of soon-to-be friends on an educational and good-will mission trip to Cuba. Yes, Cuba. Down there south of Miami. I hear it’s a unique and fantastic experience.”

A number of people responded on the post itself with excitement and encouragement, but I also received a private message from a piano technician colleague in Wichita. “I hope you have time for two friends to meet you in Cuba,” he wrote. “One is a technician involved with our donations of pianos to Cuba project. The other is coming to WSU next fall for graduate study in organ and piano.”

This opportunity iced the cake. Cuba’s musical contributions to the world stage are legendary and I was, after all, heading to Cuba to learn more about its music, its musicians, and its pianists in particular. Within two hours David Pérez Martinez emailed me. Together we worked through language barriers (I speak very little Spanish), as well as phone and internet systems with vastly different procedures. The evening of March 11, 2019, we met in person on the grounds of Hotel Nacional in Havana for a delightful visit at a table overlooking the Malécon Boulevard and the Atlantic beyond. Employed professionally as a pianist and harpsichordist in Havana, David was in process of pursuing further training in organ performance. He had applied to a few universities in the US, including Wichita State University.

Five months later, David arrived at Eisenhower National Airport, WSU having offered him the best situation.

It has been thrilling to return hospitality to this son of a nation that offered exemplary hospitality to me last March, and to keep up with his graduate studies and performances at WSU. His unparalleled joy at the keys warms the heart and provides inspiration to students of all ages here in Cowley County.

Mark your calendars: February 9, 2020, 6:00 p.m., Brown Theatre at Cowley College, 125 South 2nd, Arkansas City, Kansas. It will be a spectacular event!

(Note: This post published in the 20th minute of the 20th hour of the 20th day of the year 2020!)