A Cycle of Leap Years


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!



Holiday Blues

It happened again last night. I tossed in bed, unable to sleep, trying to still the voices in my head. They pointed out every flaw I’ve ever had, identified my weaknesses, my insufficiencies. Whispers in my mind invited me to retire from civilization, to crawl into my cozy hole and give up on the crazy madhouse of insanity the world has become.

The landscape outside is painted in drab colors. Temperatures plunge into single digits. Winter has arrived, and with it, the holiday blues. I wonder how many others struggle to step through each day, as if dragging buckets of sand with each foot. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe joyfulness of the season is forced into shadows of a heart that weeps silently with unforgotten pain and memories of Christmases long ago when excitement was real.

Those who brace themselves for another season without the presence of a dear one must number in the millions. There are new widows and widowers every year, as well as newly bereft parents, and children who will never share another holiday with a parent. There are friends who miss best friends forever, treasured aunts or uncles or grandparents now living only in memories. There are beloved pets who now wait for their owners at the rainbow bridge, not to mention people who have lost other treasures. Marriages, relationships, and friendships have gone sour. Some people have lost their robust health. Some are disfigured with scars of character in a culture that worships a narrow definition of beauty. Some have lost the vitality of youth and grieve for days that will never return. Some mourn the loss of dreams, of visions they once harbored about the way life should be and never was. Do they all struggle to remain cheerful like I do?

The things to mourn mount in number as we age until they could easily overwhelm us with grief, especially at the holidays. Given the vast array of personal loss, I wonder sometimes if anyone can escape the cold, clawing fingers of holiday blues that spread around the heart and threaten to snuff out the season’s joy. Are we all simply seduced by the advertisers to make ourselves feel better in the stores? Shop until we drop. Buy. Buy. Buy. I have yet to see the frenzy of Christmas shopping make anyone truly feel better. Are we all simply  just going through the motions, with no regard for the long-range consequences?

And yet—and yet—the actions involved in going through the motions can bring healing. Getting up and dragging myself through the day’s routine can be a salve for those forever-wounds. Taking steps to bring a moment of cheer to someone else can lighten my  load and brighten the day’s drab landscape. Choices made in honor of missing loved ones ease the pain of their absence.

So, I smile. Even when I have to make myself smile. I stand a little taller. I pull my shoulders back and put a spring into my gait. When I reach out to others, the gesture warms my own heart. Perhaps it warms them too. Somehow, in some mystifying way, the joy and the peace inherent in the season finds its way into a small crevice in my armor. I am one step closer to feeling whole again.PICT0862

Some things I have tried at various times in the past to help vanquish the blues include (but are not limited to):

1.    Take a box of my homemade cookies to someone who wouldn’t expect them.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA2.    Focus on the music of the season. Play it every chance I get, in every way possible, on every instrument I have. Piano arrangements, dulcimer music, handbell choirs or small ensembles, even recordings–all can bring joy through beautiful melodies.

3.    Contribute whatever pocket change I have every single time I encounter a bell ringer for the Salvation Army.

Parlor at the Cattle Baron Inn.
Parlor at the Cattle Baron Inn.
Cattle Baron Inn Bed and Breakfast, Howard, Kansas
Cattle Baron Inn Bed and Breakfast, Howard, Kansas

4.   Expand my horizons. Do something I’ve never done before, like booking an overnight stay at a nearby bed-and-breakfast.

5.    Take a long walk in a natural setting. Walk until I see something new, or think of a totally new thought.

6.   Renew an old friendship or make a new friend.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

To all who struggle to find cheer during the holiday season, may you feel a moment of peace now and then to comfort your heart.

What is a Piano Lesson?

Recital 2012
Recital 2012

I like to think that anyone who works in a leadership or teaching role with young people is in the business of making memories. In addition to helping our students develop skills, we provide experiences that we hope will make good memories for the rest of their lives. Exactly how does this happen in a piano lesson? Last week’s spring recital reminded me once again the real reasons to teach. Have you ever wondered exactly what parents receive for the lesson tuition paid to a piano teacher?

Certainly, we teach the elements of music.  From melody and harmony, to rhythm, tempo, dynamics and music theory, we share an international form of communication with our students.  Music notation is one of few things that is consistent worldwide. The notes our students learn will be the very same as those learned all around the world.


We teach techniques specific to mastery of our favorite instrument, the piano.   With keyboard choreography (otherwise known as fingering) and articulation styles, we teach young fingers to dance on the keys. We help them coordinate foot pedaling techniques to achieve desired musical effects.   But we teach so much more than this.  A piano lesson is really a small lesson in life.  We cover personality traits like dedication, commitment, perseverance and concentration.  We help students learn the value of repetition in the mastery of a difficult task.  (Play it again.  And again.  And yet again.)  We help students learn the value of being flexible, and the satisfaction of a job well done.  Nothing else can top that feeling.

We share other tidbits about life too.   In just a minute or two at the beginning or end of a lesson, I have explained my collection of instruments from around the world, or my collection of rocks and how they were formed.  I have discussed the direction of earth’s rotation with students and tiptoed with them to a nest of baby bunnies in my garden. I have even, on occasion, shared my favorite remedy for hiccups.

In return, the students share things with me as well.  Through our weekly meetings, we come to know each other well. We develop a relationship that has the potential to become a lifelong friendship.  After all, how many other teachers stick by their students season after season, year after year?

I hear about family celebrations.  I know where families head for summer vacations, or for the holidays.  I know who’s coming to visit and how long they will stay.  I know what is planned for birthdays.  I hear about good days at school, and bad days as well.  I hear about contests won.  And contests lost.  I receive invitations to participate in the lives of my students.  I am invited to school performances, church functions, and community performances.  I am invited to participate in school fundraisers, youth club fundraisers, and symphony fundraisers.

I have helped prepare students to perform at weddings; I hold their hands as they deal with the loss of a grandparent—sometimes even the tragic loss of a close friend.

So, sure, we piano teachers serve as teachers.  We teach music and the skills needed to play a piano.  But relationships with our students, over the years, hold so much more—teacher, coach, cheerleader, confidante, and friend.  For me there is no greater reward.

Recital 2013: The calm before the storm.
Recital 2013: The calm before the storm.


Recital 2013. Photo by Carl Shultz.
Recital 2013.  Creating memories. Photo by Carl Shultz.


A Letter From My Mother

I’m convinced that one of the hardest things to do is to switch piano teachers during the formative years. It’s hard on a student. And it’s hard for the new teacher to assess prior skills and develop a rapport with a transfer student. I know this from both a student’s and a teacher’s viewpoint. Recently I stumbled across a letter from my own mother. She wrote in response to a long epistle I had penned as a teenager. I waxed eloquent in my plea to stop my own private study in piano after we moved to a new community. Her letter smacked with impact. I could have written it to my own daughter a few years ago. Since tomorrow is Mother’s Day, I remember Mother with love. Here are her timeless words, from another time and another place.


Dear Daughter,

Last evening while thinking about the situation, I felt your father and I should no longer ask you to take lessons on the piano and resolved to discuss this with him. Upon reading your letter to us this morning, I wondered if your thought waves had influenced my thoughts. If you change your mind at any future date, please let us know; I had hoped that your experience with lessons under an inexperienced person would not preclude all future lessons. But in any case, do return to playing the piano for your own pleasure (and mine) and don’t hold a grudge against Chopin.

There’s little that I can say but to caution you that while you feel you are an adult, you still have much growing and learning to do. You have many “do-it-yourself” interests but I’m sure that after an initial learning stage you may find it wise to turn to someone more skilled or knowledgeable in that interest in order to keep improving. Try to keep an open mind. There are many things or ideas to which you have not been exposed.  In the meantime, we should all keep learning and improving in the fields of religion, music, writing, drawing, painting, speaking and personal development. No matter what one’s vocation, life will be richer and more complete because of these experiences.

Yes, darling, we are biased parents—biased in favor of our daughters. But we’re conscious that we have failed you in many ways. We love all of you very much and are proud of you.

Love always, Mother