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Four moms enjoy time at the piano

By Staff | May 7, 2009

By Cathy Jelsing

Special to The Tribune

They are the women behind the pianos. We know them from Sunday services, weddings and funerals, choir concerts, orchestra performances and theatrical productions.

These women willingly join forces with all in need of accompaniment, from teen-age virtuosos to Sunday morning hymn singers, motivated by the joy of making music, sharing it with others, and nurturing beginners.

Every town hopes to have at least one pianist like this; Rugby is blessed with several. And on Mother’s Day, four will ascend from stalwart accompanists to featured performers.

Heartland Strings Orchestra conductor Deb Jenkins expects pianists Pam Anderson, Karen Black, Glenda Mack and Cathy Wissink to steal the show with their Bach concerto for four harpsichords. “The quality of the piece itself is incredible,” Jenkins says, “and our pianists are equally amazing.”

The Mother’s Day Chamber Concert will take place at 4 p.m. Sunday, May 10, in Tilman Hovland Auditorium. In addition to the harpsichord concerto, the program includes string solos, duets and trios, a harp selection and a tuba solo. “We’ll be showing off the talents of our senior students,” Jenkins says, “but it’s not going to be student-grade, it’s going to be a professional-quality performance.”

Some string players didn’t realize the Bach “Konzert” in their music folders was written for a harpsichord quartet, until they joined the pianists for their first rehearsal at Rugby High School.

With four large instruments crowded into the choir room, there was standing room only for the string players. On cue, the pianists began to play, and within seconds the string musicians’ body language expressed a unanimous, “Wow.” Eyebrows raised, smiles appeared, and when the pianists concluded with a flourish, the string players voiced the “Wow,” adding, “that was amazing.”

The pianists felt the energy of the moment, too. “I think there are times when we play music and there are times when we make music,” says Karen Black. “That first night the orchestra rehearsed with us, I felt like we were making music.”

The music making has continued throughout the rehearsal process, and each time there’s a sense that the young string players are returning a favor to these four moms on the piano benches. The accompanists are now the accompanied.

It’s definite role reversal for Black, who started accompanying the string orchestra when her daughter Kristine began violin lessons in the fourth grade. And when Kristi started playing solos, her mom accompanied her until, Black says, her daughter surpassed her skills. Now Kristi is a senior and Glenda Mack is one of her accompanists.

“I have always been an accompanist,” says Mack. Her last piano recital goes back to her high school days, but she’s played a prominent role in the music program at Little Flower Church and teaches music twice a week at Little Flower Elementary. She gives a few piano lessons and is always ready to accompany high school musicians in choir concerts and music competitions.

Like Black, much of Mack’s motivation for being involved in music stems from her six children, the eldest 24 and the youngest 8. “My kids have all been involved in music and theatre, and that’s why I make the effort to do what I do,” Mack says.

In the Mack household, music is a way of life. As church choir director, Galen Mack had his children singing in the choir loft as soon as they could read. In the recent Village Arts spring concert, there were four Macks onstage. Daughter Theresa will be one of those accompanying her on the Bach concerto.

As for her “star” turn with the harpsichord quartet, Mack says it’s been fun to sit down and play with her colleagues, “not because it’s part of your job, but just for the sake of making music.”

Playing in a quartet is something most instrumentalists take for granted, but not pianists (portability being a key issues), so Cathy Wissink is relishing this rare opportunity. “The piano is my first love, and to get four pianists in a group playing at the same time is really fun,” she says. “It’s a challenging piece, but the three others are very accomplished and they play just beautifully.”

A more typical stint at the keyboard for Wissink involves accompanying Sunday morning worship services or playing with the Heartland Civic Choir. When her children were younger she did more accompanying at Rugby High School, where her husband, Daryl, is the choral director. Of course, there has always been music in the Wissink home.

“I don’t think I ever felt obligated to encourage my children in music,” Wissink says, “it just happened.” Today all three are active in church music, either as volunteers or professionally. And while they probably viewed their parents’ musical talents as “normal,” Wissink thinks her children understand that their mother has a gift for playing music, which she has tried to use as a blessing to other people.

Pam Anderson has been sharing her gifts as a piano teacher since 1976. She earned a double major in music and elementary education from Minot State University in 1975, but soon found she preferred working with students one on one. So she began teaching piano lessons, many of them on school property. She meets with elementary and high school students before or after classes, during lunch hours or study halls, whatever it takes to fit their schedules.

Anderson also is choir director and organist at First Lutheran Church. She’s frequently called upon to accompany students in music competitions. And she’s been the pianist for close to a dozen Village Arts summer musicals. Only her daughter plays piano, but through constant exposure, she says her two sons gained an appreciation for music and the work that goes on behind the scenes of a successful performance.

As for her, Anderson says being a solo pianist “isn’t really my cup of tea. I really enjoy accompanying. I like working with that other person, with their style, and knowing what the two of us-or the group of us-need to do to make music others will enjoy. To me that’s more challenging than being a solo performer.”

Since the Bach concerto for four harpsichords features four pianists as a quartet, it fits right in with Anderson’s definition of a wonderful musical experience. In fact, she says, “it’s a once-in-a -lifetime opportunity.”

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