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  • Kirk

Piano man in training? I'd like to believe so

I really enjoy music. That sentence likely would make Mrs. Mahnke, my elementary school music teacher, do a double take and ask me if I need to lie down for an hour or two if she still were alive.

I’m pretty sure at least a few of my classmates joined me in the “We’d rather be force-fed the meatloaf surprise or whatever other atrocity that passes for school lunch than go to music class” camp. Mrs. Mahnke was an older woman who was close to retiring by the time I left elementary school in the spring of 1982. We sang boring songs in books I swear had been in her classroom since the Kennedy Administration. And when we got a little unruly, which grade-schoolers do quite frequently, she had this nasty habit of slamming the keys of her piano with the force of an anvil dropped from the top of the Willis Tower.

I started liking music class, or at least tolerating it, by middle school. Part of the curriculum involved hands-on learning with acoustic guitars and electric keyboards. I really enjoyed the latter. I even got good enough with some practice to play the melody of part of “The Entertainer” from the movie “The Sting,” and “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” in its entirety.

But it’s my wife, Cindy, who has all the musical talent in the family. She was a trombonist in high school – even made first chair as a sophomore. She still can remember major and minor scales, and she still can sight-read simple piano pieces. I have no doubt she passed on her gift to our son, Nolan, who has Autism and is nonverbal. Nolan faces many challenges on a daily basis, but music, whether making it on his digital piano or listening to it to work through a meltdown, is always there to put him in a good place.

Imagine how I’ll feel to hear him play the music of an artist who has had a big impact on my life. And at least a little bit of an impact on his.

I bought Nolan an EZ Play Music songbook for Billy Joel’s 1977 album, “The Stranger” last week for his 16th birthday. It’s one of my favorite albums – I have two copies on vinyl, the compact disc I’ve owned for more than 30 years, and deluxe 30th anniversary edition. It’s been a go-to for me in good times and bad. And one day, instead of the frenetic sounds that are a cross between avant-garde jazz and a Yoko Ono outtake I hear Nolan playing in the living room, my ears will perk up and I’ll smile because there’s no doubt in my mind I’m hearing “Only The Good Die Young.”

My introduction to Billy Joel was in 1979 when I saw the sheet music to his song “Honesty” on my uncle’s piano. I watched Billy’s HBO concert from Long Island in 1983 at my grandparents’ house and was amazed not only by the excellent quality of his songs, but also by the high level of energy at which he performed. My allowance money, and later some of the funds from my part-time jobs, was first spent on Billy’s cassettes, then on his CDs. My interest in other artists came and went, but his music was a mainstay.

Billy’s music has been present in Nolan’s life since he was first diagnosed with Autism in 2008.

I’ve lost count of how many times Cindy and I needed to grab an iPad and find the video for “The Longest Time” on YouTube to calm down Nolan when he was upset – and it worked more times than it didn’t. One of my proudest moments as a father came when Nolan willingly watched most of Billy’s 1978 performance on “The Old Gray Whistle Test” with me. And when it came time for Nolan to see his first concert, it was Billy’s 2019 show in Milwaukee. I was worried about how he would handle being in a loud stadium for more than 2½ hours with 30,000-plus people. He did amazing.

Yeah, I’m excited about trying to teach my son to play music that means a lot to me. It’s because I know he’s very capable of learning it.

Nolan has been going to music therapy sessions for the past 7½ years, and he’s also just started 20-minute, once-every-other-week music lessons with the band director at the high school he attends. I attend his once-a-week, 45-minute music therapy sessions with him, and it’s absolutely incredible to see how much he’s progressed in the last year. He can keep a beat very well. I’ve watched him change chords on one instrument as the therapist plays another. With prompting and guidance, he can play chords on the piano and ukulele.

It was Nolan’s music therapist who recommended the EZ Play Music series when I asked her if there were any easy-to-learn music books that he would be able to understand. I found the EZ Play book for “The Stranger” by accident on the Facebook marketplace when I was looking for another Billy Joel collectible. I asked Nolan’s music therapist if she thought he was capable of playing the songs in it. She said absolutely.

So Cindy and I are starting very small. Cindy purchased stickers with musical notes and affixed them to the proper keys on Nolan’s piano. I still can find Middle C on a keyboard after all these years, and now Nolan can too after I showed him several times. I still remember the acronyms EGBDF (“Every Good Boy Does Fine”) and FACE from the lines of the treble clef (Believe it or not, I wasn’t always daydreaming of being a Major League shortstop in music class and I did pay attention from time to time).

I understand it will take an abundance of patience and time – likely a couple of months, if not longer – to start seeing results, but I think it will be worth it. My dream is to hear Nolan play these songs. Heck, I’ll be excited the day he can bang out one verse. I’m looking forward to sharing those moments with the world.

I enjoy the music of many artists and bands, and each has impacted me in one way or another. But my love of Billy Joel’s music has made me want to pass that enjoyment on to my son so that maybe others can enjoy it as well. I think Mrs. Mahnke would approve.

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