Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Mentors: Galen Deibler

We continue a new series of writings, focusing on people who influence our lives...Mentors. Today we hear from composer and broadcaster Dr. Dick Strawser.

It’s not every day you can help a teacher celebrate a milestone. We often lose track of our teachers after graduation, maybe renewing brief contact during a reunion, perhaps. So when my piano teacher from Susquehanna University e-mailed me a little over a week ago about a “video interview” in the local paper’s website, I had to check it out.

Galen Deibler (seen right standing by the piano with student Robert Synder) was my piano teacher through four years of undergraduate study at Susquehanna, as well as a theory teacher and the teacher of the Romantic Music literature course I took one year. Though I never became the pianist those years of study might presume – years later I joked “if practice makes perfect but perfection is unattainable, what’s the sense of practicing? so I quit” – Deibler taught me more than just about playing the piano or how chord progressions worked or what went into the making of a Brahms intermezzo. He taught also by example, not just as a pianist: I can’t say I was ever able to emulate his musicianship or his humility or compassion or sense of adventure in everything he experienced, but he was a major influence on my life and succeeded at least in instilling a love of teaching and a sense of ones own integrity that are part of me still today.

He’d said in the mass e-mail he’d sent out that he was particularly pleased with the Schubert Impromptu, but I had no idea what else he might be playing: curiously, having tried to play it myself years ago, I could recognize he was playing the E-flat Impromptu (D.899, #2) which lies under the hand so well but is still, frankly, a bitch to play – keeping all the running notes in the right hand even while trying to keep the left hand from sound like it’s flopping around playing the harmony.

It’s especially challenging, you’d think, for hands that have been playing the piano for some 72 years, now. It seemed to fly by without a care in the world.

The interview was not just about playing Schubert. It was where and why he was playing it.

Galen’s been the pianist in the little country church of his hometown for fifty years, now, and Sunday, August 10th, was going to be a special service marking the anniversary. In typical Deibler fashion, the service – a “music Sunday” rather than a typical worship service with music – was not going to be about Galen Deibler, but about music and music-making. It was a kind of public performance but not a recital: he was going to be joined by several of his former students, each of whom had joined him over the past years to play in the church.

You can read the article and view the video posted at the website for Sunbury’s Daily Item here. There’s also another article about the event posted at The News Item, another paper that serves the Shamokin area.

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I decided I wanted to go. St. John’s Lutheran Church is located in Snydertown which, much to my surprise – since it’s always good to know where your destination is, is not located in Snyder County. Galen had often talked of his hometown in such a way, I assumed it was just outside of Selinsgrove, a few miles from the university. Instead, it’s about a dozen or so miles east of Sunbury – not that far away, really, but if I’d been going on my own natural, directionally-challenged instincts, I would’ve been driving around the backroads of Snyder County trying to locate it and missed the whole point of going there. As it was, the day offered me not one but three opportunities to get lost and I managed to live up to my own expectations quite handily.

Googling the church, it was apparently located on Main Street, when I found an address at all; the one article said it was on Snydertown Road. It’s quite possible it could be both. Checking on-line for a map of Snydertown, I discovered there were two roads in Greater Snydertown – Snydertown Road, which ran east-west, and Market Street which ran north-south. The intersection, one would assume, would be The Center of Town. How hard could it be to find a small church in a small country town?

Figuring about an hour to Selinsgrove by old habit (before the highway had been completely re-done), the directions indicated an additional half hour, so I left Harrisburg in plenty of time, following an old route long familiar though considerably changed from the late-60s when I first started traveling this road between home and college. I found my way through Sunbury, taking this street, then that street to get to 11th Street which eventually becomes Snydertown Road once it leaves the city limits. By this point, I passed the house that the Italian poet and would-be-priest Lorenzo da Ponte had built on the square in Sunbury after he had left Vienna and Mozart’s operas behind him to open a dry-goods store in Central Pennsylvania in the early years of the 19th Century (another, long over-due post, by the way).

By the time my tripometer clocked in at the number of miles the internet had told me it would take, I had reached a sign that said “Now Entering Snydertown, PA.” I also had about 30 minutes to spare before the church service would begin, a little better than the time indicated on-line, but then going the requisite number of miles over the speed-limit on Rt.11-15 to Selinsgrove and still getting passed by everybody in the process. In fact, the only thing slower than me was the dead ’possum on the side of the road north of Liverpool.

But for some reason, I was having trouble finding the TOWN of Snydertown. Yes, there was the intersection, though I couldn’t read the street-sign – Market, as the on-line map told me – and the south-bound side had a big ROAD CLOSED sign. Driving past too fast to be able to reconnoiter my bearings, I kept driving on Snydertown Road. Several miles and many minutes later, rarely seeing more than an occasional house and no one about to stop and ask, I decided to turn around, confronting another sign on the way back that said “Now Entering Snydertown.” I returned to the intersection with Market Street and, turning north (since that road was not closed) found a church – wrong one – but little else. At the top of a hill, there was a side-road (the suburbs of Snydertown?), so I turned around in time to realize once again I was “Now Entering Snydertown.” With only one road left to check, I decided to continue on what actually turned out to be marked MAIN Street, not Market Street, and found that the south-bound road is closed a few miles down because of bridge repairs. But there, there were houses and lots of cars and people, and the spire of an old country church, familiar from the video interview.

As I drove past the church, trying to figure out where I could park, I saw Galen Deibler heading inside. This must be the place: it was five minutes to go before the service was to begin.

Slipping into a side pew near the back – the church was quite full, however many of them were from the community – I looked around wondering if I would recognize anybody. Friends from 40 years ago? Other faculty members from school? How long would it have been since I’d last seen them and how much have the years changed us, if we’d recognize each other? Galen looked remarkably the same – a little grayer, a little more stooped in the shoulder, but I would never have guessed he was 77 now. In fact, he seemed younger than I am, stopping here and there to chat with a friend before the service began.

He did his own introduction which is not surprising since he also organized his own celebration. The church had wanted to surprise him but they couldn’t very well just spring it on him so eventually they decided to tell him their plans. He, then, contacted some of his former students about joining him, along with a member of the congregation and his grandson Aaron, now a student at Gettysburg College, who began the service playing the violin for the Meditation from Massanet’s Tha├»s. Then he accompanied Betty Phillips in a setting of the old hymn, “How Great Thou Art.” He played the E Major Prelude and Fugue from Book 1 of Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier,” then was joined by trumpeter Dale Orris for the Trumpet Voluntary by John Stanley (familiar to listeners as the theme of Loran Fevens’ “The Music Box” on Sunday nights). Then came a hymn, “O God Our Help in Ages Past,” prefaced by a recorder duet played by two of his daughters. Following prayers and readings for the service, baritone Nathan Troup sang two selections – the Largo (Ombra, mai fu) from Handel’s Xerxes and Schubert’s “Ave Maria.” Shawn Daly, a former piano student of Galen’s, played the “Harmonious Blacksmith” from Handel’s Suite No. 5 in E Major, followed by a rather unchurch-like selection, the A-flat Major Ballade by Chopin.

Pastor John Fenton allowed members of the congregation to speak instead of offering a sermon. One of the daughters read a poem sent by her brother who could not attend the service (traveling in Germany with his family), reminiscing about Sundays at St. John’s with the picture of Jesus and the sheep “swimming in a sea of yellow” on the right wall as we all looked over at the painting, and about the old upright piano getting ready to play. The youngest daughter reminisced how she’d use every trick in the book not to have to go to church but no matter how hard she tried, the “express train for Snydertown” always left the house with time to spare, though she eventually came to love this family-time.

Several in the congregation stood up to thank Galen for his years of service or to tell stories about having been his students. I wondered what I might say if I stood up, but I’m very bad at these sorts of things and decided to let it pass.

One of them had been one of Galen’s students a few years behind me: he had also been one of my fraternity brothers (in fact, he was my “little brother” the year he joined Phi Sigma Kappa) and we had probably not seen each other since he graduated 34 years ago. Studying with Deibler even before he was in college, he often went to the house for lessons and became part of the family. His story – about the dazed cat who’d peered out over the piano’s music rack after a particularly intense C Minor Prelude from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1, having decided ill-advisedly to take a nap inside the piano that afternoon – reminded me of a time when, as a senior, I went out to the house for a lesson (mostly, they would’ve been at his studio in the music building) and tip-toed across the living room floor through wall-to-wall toys (I’m not sure how old his three children then were, but the fourth would be born the following year) and how, perhaps 12-13 years ago, I had gone back to visit him one weekend afternoon and found myself, once again, tip-toeing through a living room full of toys when a wave of serious deja-vu made me realize it’s not that they’d never cleaned up from twenty years earlier but that it was now grandchildren!

As the service resumed, Dale Orris joined Galen for another of the hymns, followed by three pieces performed by pianist Jacob Frasch – “The Sunken Cathedral” by Debussy, the Minuet from Bach’s 1st Partita (the trio kept playing through my head much of this past week), and Brahms’ A Major Intermezzo, Op.118, No. 2, which is a work I still try to play and one that Galen had taught me during my lessons, pointing out some structural things and voicings that not only helped the interpretation and showed me that it’s not just sitting down to play the notes that make the piece, but which also served as a history class and composition lesson (under the chapter, “learning ones craft”).

Then, during the offering, Galen played the Schubert Impromptu I’d mentioned earlier, phrasing it with that same sense of technical understanding, fingers wafting effortlessly over the keys – difficult enough to keep smooth even when you are practicing – and being thoroughly stylistic and aesthetically exquisite, or in the middle section, passionate and dramatic in the process. Even though there was the distraction of passing the offering plates, it was easily the best – or at least most meaningful – performance of the piece I’d ever heard.

After the Lord’s Prayer, Nathan Troup and Dale Orris returned for “The Trumpet Shall Sound,” from Handel’s Messiah. It’s not likely this little church gets its rafters dusted by music-making like this that often. Dale is currently teaching in Lewisburg (and at Bucknell University) and, being close by, plays often at the church with Galen. Nathan, however, won the long-distance award, driving down from Boston to join in the celebration. In fact, Shawn Daly came in from Ohio and Jacob Frasch came up Baltimore. One friend drove in from Washington DC and another from New Jersey – my little 90-mile trek seemed like nothing, by comparison – but that is the sense of dedication, here.

The service ended with “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” and echoes of Psalm 100 (“Be joyful in the Lord, all ye lands; serve the Lord with gladness and come before his presence with a song”), along with memories of Galen’s seemingly effortless Schubert, as well as Shawn’s Chopin, Jake’s Brahms, and the rousing “Trumpet Shall Sound” with Nathan and Dale, personal highlights of a performance that was, from beginning to end, like highlights from a life.

During the service, Pastor Fenton told, among other things, how Galen and his wife, Deanna, had initiated having the box placed by the door where the congregation could drop off food items that can then be given to the local food bank, or how they had argued, when a small church is struggling to survive, their role in the community is just as important. There was the time some Romanian immigrants, escaping from Communist Eastern Europe, had been imprisoned nearby and the Deiblers went to meet them, organizing support for them in the communities and helping with legal aid when they were here with very little understanding of the language, much less the system. When they were moved to a prison outside Philadelphia, the Deiblers continued driving down to work with them. When they were released, some of them came back and lived with the Deiblers until they were able to get their feet on the ground and be on their own.

Afterward, there was a community picnic behind the church during which several graduating high school students were presented with scholarships. I’m not sure whether it was from the town or from a committee of the church, or whether the amount had recently been increased to $100 or $150 each, but even though this may not put much of a dent in a student’s college expenses these days, when you consider there were five of these given out, that’s a good bit of money from a small town of about 350 people and a church that is always struggling to survive.

During the various announcements in between selections played over the sound system – the theme was “The ‘50s” with appropriate music – we sat eating home-made food that most baby-boomers these days would consider “comfort food,” while people in the community were recognized for years of service and dedication, kids got up to sing (one, able to count her age in single digits, going through a repertoire of nursery rhymes with the Alphabet Song like a 13-part Rondo, reminded me that Beverly Sills probably got her start like this), and I realized what magic still exists in what we city folks think of as life in Small-Town America.

At one point, the MC of the event said, “I don’t know how many of you attended the church service this morning and heard all that... [pause] wonderful music,” (several people nodded), “but now we’re going to return to the music we love – the music of the ‘50s.” (Hmmm... I was reminded of my one college roommate who’d been a student-teacher in a town like this where the high school music teacher had defined classical music “as the kind of music nobody likes”...) And back came the CDs. Very loud.

Galen invited me to join them out at the house, giving me quick directions to refresh what passes for memory considering I hadn’t been there more than four or five times in the past 38 years, only once under my own driving and that four years ago. True to form, I got to the one demarking intersection and couldn’t remember “Do I turn here or is it at the next stop-sign after this one...?” A mile down the road, I realized I’d missed the turn, retraced my wheels and found myself shortly in front of the very recognizable house, a minor detour.

Conversation in the living room primarily focused on “shop talk” with four pianists in the room comparing the finer points of Steinway pianos and newer models from Mason & Hamlin – complete with model numbers – that was completely beyond me, until Galen came back into the room, changing the topic to be more inclusive after seeing to his wife and daughters’ preparations in the kitchen ready to be taken out onto the deck. There was food (included something wicked with curry, an Indian dish Deanna had learned to make when she was living in India as a nurse’s aide in one of the country’s poorer areas) , champagne, much conversation and many reminiscences, trying in some cases to catch up with friends I hadn’t seen in 34 years. Comments were made by those who’d followed my now-terminated radio career with questions about the future – yeah, well, “stay tuned” – and one of Galen’s daughters told me about renovations they’d been doing at their really old house in Connecticut, built 50 years ago, as I’m telling others about the house I’m living in now which I grew up in, built, uhm... 50 years ago. Perception is everything.

And then there was knowing the next generation continues: grandson Aaron, who played the violin at the start of the service, will be going off to Argentina for the spring semester. Whether music will be his life or not is not important at this point, but it all adds up to a part of the whole, as I sat there and talked with another friend whom I’d met when he was in Pre-Med and is now a doctor who still finds time to do more than just play the piano.

And Galen told me that he wanted to work on my piano piece, “Poetries,” again “and this time get it right,” though I thought there was nothing wrong with the way he played it in 2004, the second pianist to ever play it since I wrote it in New York in 1979. It amazed me he’d wanted to play it al all, then, considering he doesn’t generally play much 20th Century music, and my style is not one he’d be familiar with. This didn’t stop him: he wanted to do it because it was written by a student of his and he liked the adventure of the challenge. He was telling me that, after his eye surgery these next few weeks, he wanted to work on it again: he doesn’t spend as much time practicing since performing is not the major part of his life, now, and there are many things he still wants to do, but he’s hoping to get back into “Poetries” and play it again.

It’s amazing what something like that can do for one’s sense of self-esteem. He was still being the same sensitive, caring, inspiring person he’d been as my teacher forty years ago, and meaning it sincerely.

Having picked up my old copy of Samuel Beckett’s novels – “Molloy,” “Malone Dies” and “The Unnamable” – which ends with the line “I can’t go on, I’ll go on,” it’s days like this (in fact, that whole weekend) that make me realize “I’ll go on.”

It was a beautiful day for a drive through the country – and real country with rolling hills, woods and farmland, not suburban developments, malls, gas-stations and the increasingly ubiquitous nail salons. I reconnected with the familiar route north of Liverpool (waving at the still dead ‘possum on the other side of the road) and still managed to get home an hour after having left Selinsgrove (checking a map, I realized the road whose turn I missed the first time through was the one I should’ve followed, since it would take me directly to Selinsrgove past the university and deep into more familiar territory). But who cares? I made it home and felt great for having made the effort, after all, getting a chance to visit with friends and pay a small tribute to a mentor still mentoring.
Entry by Dr. Dick Strawser, used and adapted by permission. You can read more on his blog, Thoughts on a Train.
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