Last week I played the piano at a memorial service for one of my very dear listeners. I met Walt almost 4 years ago; you met him here.
Music was the focus of Walt’s retirement years. He began taking singing lessons around age 90, and worked hard to train his bass voice. Every few months, he gave a concert for the other seniors in his facility, accompanied by his voice teacher at the piano.
Walt’s wide-ranging musical tastes made for interesting, varied concerts. He had many favorites from both the World War I (“It’s a Long Way to Tipperary”) and World War II eras (“Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree with Anyone Else But Me”). He was partial to Broadway tunes, especially ones that showcased his ability to hit those low, low notes—like “Ol’ Man River” from Show Boat. He adored Fiddler on the Roof and the 1960 musical The Fantasticks (“Try to Remember”). And he felt strongly that, for sheer artistry, Andrew Lloyd Webber (The Phantom of the Opera, Cats, Jesus Christ Superstar) beat Stephen Sondheim hands down, but composer Claude-Michel Schönberg’s Les Misérables topped even Lloyd Webber.
Despite having terrible problems with rhythm—which he’d be the first to admit—Walt tackled “Jet Song” and “Something’s Coming” and others from West Side Story. He gladly crossed generational lines to sing “Forever Young” by Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” Over the years, his concerts included songs in French, German, Italian, Latin, and Hebrew. He tracked down obscure Christmas carols for something different each December. So much music, so little time. He wanted to try it all.
Walt researched every song he sang, often using Wikipedia, then typed up detailed programs to hand out to his concert audience. These events were always well-attended; I was there whenever possible. I once asked Walt if he felt nervous before his concerts. “Oh, no,” he responded. “I have a very accepting audience here.” It was true. Sure, he made mistakes—missing his entrance, losing his place in the music, singing a little off-key now and then. We didn’t care. We had tremendous admiration and appreciation for what he was doing.
In addition to his concerts, Walt organized weekly sing-alongs, for which he rounded up a volunteer mandolin player. He also serenaded residents who returned after hospital stays, personalizing the words to “Hello, Dolly”:
Well, hello ________
Yes, hello _________
It’s so nice to have you back where you belong…
I supported Walt in his musical adventures and he certainly repaid me in kind. He was my biggest fan, carefully arranging his medical appointments and errands around my Friday piano visits. And he recognized almost all of the songs I played. On the rare occasion that I stumped him, well, that made him happy too. Something new! That song was likely to turn up in one of his future concerts.
Walt urged his activities director to reward me occasionally: a plate of Christmas cookies, a small gift certificate to the local music store. He was quick to correct fellow residents who assumed that I was paid for my efforts. “No, she’s a volunteer,” he’d inform them, delivering the news with an attitude that seemed to add, Can you believe how lucky we are? The two of us always ate lunch together in the community dining hall after I finished playing. He brought me tea, slowly pushing it across the room with the cup balanced on the built-in seat of his walker.
A couple of days after Walt died, his daughter told me that he had left me all of his sheet music, a towering pile measuring more than three feet high. And that he had a request: Would I play the piano at his memorial service?
I knew it would be hard, but I also knew it would be the perfect tribute to a man who had been such an important part of my life as a volunteer pianist.
What to play was left entirely up to me, so I chose songs that I knew he loved, playing in the background while people gathered for the service, which was held at Walt’s retirement home. Family and friends reminisced about the small, quiet man who profoundly affected those around him by simply working, caring, listening, sharing. By being, as one woman put it, “our leading citizen.” Walt’s voice teacher sang “Goin’ Home,” a spiritual adapted from the largo (slow and stately) theme of Dvorak’s New World Symphony. I accompanied on piano. Then we all raised a plastic flute of non-alcoholic champagne in a toast to this wonderful man.
Scottish poet Thomas Campbell wrote: “To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die.” (1825)
Walt will remain alive in the hearts of many who feel privileged to have known him. I am one.
Copyright © 2013 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
All rights reserved.