Tag Archive | Gospel pianist

My Musical Destiny

Welcoming guests to our bed and breakfast in 1998.

Welcoming guests to our bed and breakfast in 1998.

Seventeen years ago, Mim and I created a new business called Korth-Jacobson, LLC. Within that business structure we have done lots of different things – from being a bed and breakfast to selling real estate; from doing strategic planning and project management for small businesses to providing music in churches and a pub and other venues; from hosting spiritual retreats to caring for the elderly in our home. All of these businesses have been based out of our home. For the past 12 years, one of our businesses has been Country Comforts Assisted Living. We currently care for two 94-year-olds in our home, and we also coordinate the care of a third almost 94-year-old who lives with a neighbor.

By the very nature of this caregiving business, we are working 24/7. Whenever we are at home, we are responsible for being sure the needs of our residents are met. Whenever we are not at home, we need to be sure another caregiver is present to meet these needs. We have finally realized that to meet our own need for a break, we must take some time off, and that means we need to be away from our work environment – away from home. Lately we’ve established the schedule of taking Tuesdays and Thursdays off from about 1:00 or 1:30 pm till about 8:00 pm. Our most usual destinations on these days are Woodmans, Costco, and occasionally Trader Joe’s for groceries; Menards for hardware items; Farm & Fleet for dog treats and toys and for clothes when they go on sale (really!); and resale shops for books, clothes, gifts, and other bargains we “need.” Occasionally we’ll go to a movie if we don’t have any shopping that needs to be done.

A couple weeks ago we redeemed a gift certificate from a good friend and went to see the matinee performance at the Fireside Theater of “All Shook Up.”  We had a wonderful time listening to all those Elvis songs from the 50s and 60s, and laughing about the inter-racial mix-ups and mistaken sexual identity antics. Hearing those Elvis songs from our grade school and high school years brought back one of my childhood memories.

Lowery Organ 2

Lowery electronic organ, state of the art using vacuum tube technology in 1957.

My sister Nancy (11 years older than me) started giving me piano lessons before I started school. I’ve  enjoyed playing the piano ever since. When I was nine, my mom bought a Lowery electronic organ. She had grown up playing a reed pump organ, and she missed playing an organ. A piano wasn’t as much fun for her, although she played it some. When the new electronic organ was delivered to our house I was as excited as I could be. I got to take the ten free lessons that came with the organ from Ward Brodt in Madison, and then I continued taking lessons from our church organist – both piano and organ. But from my first organ teacher at Ward Brodt I learned that any kind of music can be played on an organ – not just hymns. I had to walk through the print music department at the store to get to the lesson rooms, and I always browsed the music on my way out of the store. Most of my allowance was spent on music books with titles like “The Best Hits of 1962 for Easy Organ.” I acquired quite a collection and learned to play songs as varied as “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” to “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.”

One Thursday morning when I was about 10 or 11, (I know it was Thursday because that was my mom’s day off) Eleanor Jarlsberg, one of my mom’s friends from church, came over for morning coffee. Mom and Eleanor were sitting at the dining room table drinking their coffee, and I was in the living room playing the organ just for fun, not practicing. I was going through my latest “Greatest Hits…” book. I was playing mostly the slower and quieter songs so that I wouldn’t disturb their conversation in the next room. When I finished playing the Elvis’ hit “Love Me Tender,” Eleanor asked me what hymn that was – she really liked it. When I told her it was an Elvis Presley song – not a hymn, she laughed and laughed, and I felt kind of embarrassed.

That’s when I began to put two and two together to understand that my destiny was to be a gospel pianist/organist, regardless of the type of music I tried to play. I’m not the gospel pianist that my Aunt Edith was who added all kinds of embellishments all over the keyboard. I’m not very good at that. I’m the kind of gospel music player that can play very expressively by varying volume and where on the keyboard I’m playing – high or low – and by sometimes holding a note a little too long to build the tension. I do simple stuff to draw the listener into the emotional message of the song.

Over the years as I learned more classical music on the piano and more traditional hymns and hymn arrangements on the organ, I tried to become more classical in my style of playing. But that was never as much fun for me. But then I noticed that Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” can easily morph into “Jesus Loves Me.” And that “Seek Ye First the Kingdom of God” can weave itself into Pachelbel’s “Canon in D.”

Beer Barrel Polka sheet musicOne morning last week I had a musical breakthrough. A few years ago, a friend of mine was planning her funeral, and she asked me if I would be willing to play for it. Of course, I said sure. Then she said she wanted the funeral to be a joyous time of celebration. One of the songs she wanted me to play was “The Beer Barrel Polka.” I happen to know the song because that’s one of the songs my first organ teacher at Ward Brodt taught me. But, I’ve felt uncomfortable with that song for a funeral ever since she made the request. My friend died last week. As I was mulling over whether nor not I should play the song, it suddenly dawned on me – if I can morph “Clair de Lune” into “Jesus Loves Me” I certainly can morph “The Beer Barrel Polka” into “Jesus Loves Me.” So I did.

Yup. That’s my destiny. Regardless of what type of music I try to play, gospel is what’s going to come out. God made me that way, and I’ve finally come to whole-heartedly accept it.

Thanks, Nancy, for helping me learn that lesson.

Nancy Koplin cropped

Nancy Koplin, a good friend who helped me find “Jesus Loves Me” in “The Beer Barrel Polka.”

Remembering the Saints – the most significant people in my life who are now dead

Lots of my relatives - the year before I was born. My brother Danny is sitting on the grass on the right side of the picture - in front of Mom and beside Grandpa.

Lots of my relatives – the year before I was born. My brother Danny is sitting on the grass on the right side of the picture – in front of Mom and beside Grandpa.

 

Thursday of this week is Halloween, the eve of All Saints Day. On Sunday, some churches will read a list of members of the congregation who have died over the past year. This is a time of year to remember the people who are no longer with us who have been significant to us in our own lives, and to thank God for these people.

As I was curled up under the covers in bed this morning thinking about what to blog about today, making a list of these people came to mind – not just the people who died this year, but all the people who have died who have been significant to me. I started making a mental list of them, and I realized I’d better get up and write them down – the names were coming to me too fast to remember and organize in my mind. So I got up and quickly jotted down the names as they came to me, and I realized I’d better limit the number of people to include in the blog. So I crossed off a few names and settled on 13 people for this blog (a good number for Halloween), plus one bonus. I’m still going to thank God for all the rest, too, even if I don’t tell you about them today.

Here’s the list – 13 people who have been very significant to me in my life, and who have moved on to their next life:

  1. Mom and Dad at their 50th Anniversary celebration.

    Mom and Dad at their 50th Anniversary celebration.

    Mom. I think the most significant thing I learned from my mom is about love. I always knew she loved me, as well as my siblings, her grandchildren, her Sunday School kids, the UW students who stopped in to see her at the Presbyterian Student Center in Madison where she worked, the starving kids in Africa that she read about in her mail and sent checks to every month, and everyone else who touched her life – she loved us all.

  2. Dad. My dad taught me about work. As a farmer, he knew that he was responsible for getting all the work done. If the hay baler broke, that didn’t mean he didn’t have to bale hay that day. It meant he had to figure out how to fix the baler as quickly as possible so that he could still bale the hay and get everything else done he had planned for that day. His attitude taught me to be a problem solver as well as a hard worker.
  3. Nancy. My big sister (11 years older than me) taught me to set aside some time every day to read the Bible and pray. When she went away to college, she ordered me a subscription to a children’s daily devotional booklet to help me keep on track.
  4. Helen Knoblauch. My first grade teacher was a very kind and loving person. Everyone in her class knew that she loved them. One way she showed that love was by being the kindest of all to the kid that was hurting the most that day. I remember one day when I was that kid. A leaf had blown into my eye and scratched it when I was playing on the playground after lunch. My eye really hurt and I was crying. Mrs. Knoblauch had me sit on her lap while she read a storybook to the class. That made me feel a whole lot better – so much better that I still remember it almost 60 years later.
  5. Marion Gilberts. She was our church organist and my piano and organ teacher. In addition to using the typical lesson books, she had me learn every hymn in both of the hymnals we used in church. She also gave me the experience of playing in church by having me play an offertory at least once a year. She didn’t just teach me the piano and organ, she taught me to be a church organist.
  6. Aunt Edith at the piano. (In the 1930s she married the happy little boy pictured above, my Uncle Helmer.

    Aunt Edith at the piano.

    Aunt Edith. She was the most creative pianist I ever watched tickle the ivories. She was a self-taught gospel pianist who could play any hymn she had ever heard, in any key you wanted to hear it. The only printed music I saw her use was a hymnal or songbook, yet she improvised all over the keyboard. She is still my inspiration to learn to play more by ear and to improvise.

  7. Rev. Royal Bailie. He was the pastor that confirmed me in the Methodist Church. As a confirmation gift he gave me a different kind of Bible, the J. B. Phillips paraphrase of the New Testament. That’s the only Bible that I completely wore out the binding by opening it too much.
  8. Auntie Emma. Also known as Emma Prescott. She was my grandma’s sister. I always thought of her as the most generous Christian I knew. She and her husband, Uncle Don, supported many children through World Vision and other missions. She once made a comment that I’ll never forget. She said she was glad she didn’t have as much money as one of her daughters had. Stewardship of that amount of money was more than she could imagine handling wisely. That comment has always made me think seriously about my stewardship of all the resources God has given me.
  9. Rev. Bill Leslie. He was the pastor of one of the churches I attended in Chicago for several years. I didn’t know him very well personally, but I learned a lot from his preaching. He prompted me to think for the first time about what my responsibility as a Christian is for dealing with the problems in the city, particularly the problems that resulted from the injustices that are inherent in our culture.
  10. Mark Hjermstad. Mark was a loving pragmatist, and that’s not an oxymoron. He taught me to relate to the world the best way you can. He was a closeted gay pre-kindergarten teacher for special needs children in the Chicago Public School System. We met Mark in church, shortly before his partner died of AIDS. He became one of our best friends. He always encouraged his gay friends to be as open as they could about who they were – although he couldn’t be out as a gay teacher and still keep his own job.
  11. Mary Borgerud. Mrs. Borgerud was my fifth- and sixth-grade teacher. She taught me history, geography, kindness, and generosity. She also taught me to have fun with writing. I still remember one of the essays I wrote in her class – “I’m a Little Mouse with Great Big Eyes.” We also laughed a lot together, especially when she came to live with Mim and me at Country Comforts Assisted Living for the last year or so of her life.
  12. Eileen Scott. Thanks to Eileen I’m a church organist again. Between 1975 and 1999 I didn’t play the piano or organ for anyone except myself at home. In 1999, Eileen learned that the Methodist pastor in town discouraged me from playing for a Christmas program in his church because of my sexual orientation. As a very strong take-charge person, Eileen approached me about becoming an organist in her church, the Presbyterian Church in town. Being a church organist has been a significant part of my life ever since.
  13. Selma Jacobson. I guess now I can say Selma is my mother-in-law. Shortly after Mim and I moved to Wisconsin, Mim’s mom had a stroke which left her paralyzed on her left side. After several months of rehab, she came to live with Mim and me. Despite all her physical losses, she always maintained a positive attitude and a very pleasant disposition. She lived with us for the last five years of her life, and was a daily inspiration to me to accept life for what it is, and to always trust in God’s love and kindness.

And now, for one bonus saint – Megabyte. She was the first dog that Mim and I got together, and she enriched our lives for 15 years. The one thing that dogs know better than anything, and better than anyone else knows, is how to love.

Many names are missing from this list – Grandma, Uncle Helmer, Gary, Clark, Steve, Nicki, Hiram, Joe, Donnie, and more. If I kept naming them I wouldn’t get this blog posted today. There’s also an equally long list of people who are still alive that I’m thankful for. God has truly blessed me with loads of wonderful people – and dogs – in my life. I am so thankful. I guess it’s appropriate that Halloween, the eve of All Saints Day, starts off the holiday season. Then comes Thanksgiving, and then Christmas. All three holidays are times to be especially thankful for all the good gifts God has given us.

Megabyte and Selma welcoming a new kitten into our home.

Megabyte and Selma welcoming a new kitten into our home.

Let’s Celebrate!

“Naked Ladies” (also known as “Resurrection Lilies”) brighten the dry summer landscape at Whispering Winds. A beautiful reason to celebrate!

To forget to celebrate is to forget to imitate the God who created us and then relaxed and said, “that’s Good.”[Joan Chittister, OSB, “The Monastic Way,” July 2012]

The theme of Joan Chittister’s little devotional pamphlet, “The Monastic Way,” for the month of July has been “celebrating life.” When I first pulled the pamphlet out of the envelope I thought that’s a strange theme to use for daily devotions for a whole month, even if it is the month of 4th of July fireworks and the beginning of the Summer Olympics. But I’ve been delighted by how Chittister’s daily comments have prompted my thoughts throughout the month, helping me find lots of special moments to celebrate.

I’ve already talked about the wonderful organ concert at Sinsinawa that was an incredible musical celebration on the 4th of July. My mouth still slips into a grin whenever I think about “Organ for Eight.”

On July 10, Chittister’s comment was, “The tragedy of life is to allow it to go by without appreciating something in every single day, without celebrating its fundamental goodness to us.” Later, on July 25, she wrote, “Learning to celebrate life in its smallest moments is an acquired skill. Without it we can only limp through life.”

Edith Kenseth, Gospel Pianist – another reason to celebrate! Picture taken 26 years ago at my parents’ 50th anniversary celebration.

As I read about celebrating life in its smallest moments I thought back to the day before. On Tuesday evening, July 24, Mim and I took my 98-year-old Aunt Edith to the chapel service at Willerup Park Bible Camp on Lake Ripley, about 2 miles from Whispering Winds. This was the week of “Institute” – a week of family camp for Methodist families, primarily of Scandinavian heritage and mostly from Chicago, Milwaukee, and Racine, who had a long history and partial ownership in the Bible Camp. Aunt Edith had often played the piano in her elaborately improvised Gospel style for these chapel services over the past 80 years or so. A couple years ago the chapel had been given a new name – the “Edith Kenseth Chapel.” Edith was excited to go to the service Tuesday evening, although she was a little apprehensive that they might expect her to play the piano, and she wasn’t getting around as well as she used to since she broke her leg a few months ago. (Fortunately, they didn’t ask. They used a guitar to accompany the singing instead. )

Lots of Edith’s friends (and children and grandchildren of her friends) came over to talk with Edith, both before and after the service. During the service the worship leader prayed for Edith and thanked God for Edith’s stunning example of using her musical talents throughout her whole lifetime for God’s glory.

Edith Kenseth Chapel at Willerup Park Bible Camp in Cambridge, Wisconsin

As I thought about that evening, I realized that it was another little celebration, another special moment.  The following Saturday, Chittister’s comment was, “To be born is to be asked to celebrate, to grow in awareness of the presence of God in the smallest of moments, to know the goodness of God.” By celebrating Edith’s lifetime example of helping us all worship God through her music, we all became a little more aware of the goodness of God.

As the introduction to the July “Monastic Way” said, “Always, always, they [celebrations] deepen the very meaning of life for us as we go along.”

 

Pier in Lake Ripley at Willerup Park Bible Camp – a place to celebrate the beauty of nature and the joys of family camp.