By Bill Vossler
Most people get discouraged if they’re told several times that they’re not good at something--doubly so if they believe it themselves. But Keith Magsam of St. Cloud is clearly not “most people.” He turned that discouragement into his life’s work, a rag-to-riches story of the American dream of success.
“We grew up in a little country Presbyterian Church in Euclid, Minn., with eight pews on each side. Each family had a pew, and ours was the third pew on the right side. I had a full view of the organist. I followed her hands as they glided over the keys and saw how she pushed certain ones to play the familiar hymns. That mesmerized me and was when music first attracted me.”
His interest continued to grow. On paper he drew organ keyboards to pretend playing. Visitors to the Magsam farm would have been surprised to see where several of the seven Magsam siblings were playing.
“Each of us had our own branch in our massive willow tree that we sat in, and played church. Somebody was the preacher and gave a sermon, some were the congregation, but I always asked to be the organist, and we’d sing songs like The Little Brown Church in the Vale or Trust and Obey while Keith ‘played’ the organ.
“My Mother noticed my interest, so in seventh grade, we got a piano.” Inside the piano bench was a bonus, a John W. Thompson Red Piano Method Book #1. “That became my teacher. It taught me how to identify the letter names of the keys, and I taught myself what the notes were.”
Keith loved to practice, and his mother would sometimes lock the piano so the family could watch TV. His practice persistence paid off when fate intervened... the church organist got injured in a very serious farm accident. “She was in a body cast for a year, and people knew we had a piano, and I could play a bit, and decided I would be the next church organist.”
He learned three hymns every week, and played the church organ for the congregation. “If it took me two hours to learn a hymn, I enjoyed every minute of it. I played the organ from eighth grade until I graduated from high school and never missed a Sunday.
“My mother was very proud that I was the organist, and said I could play louder and faster than the regular organist had.”
Though Keith played for the church out of necessity, but always loved doing it. “That was when I decided I wanted to go into music.”
Eventually, Keith discovered self-teaching had its limitations. “During my first piano lesson at St. Cloud State University the teacher asked me to play a song I knew so she could hear how I played.” After finishing his memorized opening to The Moonlight Sonata, the teacher said, “Now play a C Major scale.”
“I said, ‘What is that?’ I’d never heard of classical music. I was musically illiterate, and had a lot to learn.”
Keith loved to sing in his childhood church, and one Sunday after singing Sweet Hour of Prayer, his mother said, “‘You sing quite loud.’ I was the only one singing at the top of my lungs SWEET HEART OF PRAYER.” However, I don’t ever remember being asked to sing softer. We were a small country church, but the people loved to sing out their favorite hymns.”
In a high school vocal solo contest, he got verified what he had already realized--that he didn’t have a gift for music like some others. “After I sang the adjudicator said ‘There’s potential in there if you do this and this…’ which meant I had a lot to learn.”
Then, in a college voice studio where students sang for each other, “I was aware that I didn’t sing as well as most of the other music majors. A few years later some of them shared that many of the singers questioned why I was majoring in vocal music.”
But Keith stayed persistent. “Along the way many voice teachers taught me how to correctly use my voice, so I practiced what I learned from them, and my voice improved. Though I wasn’t gifted with a natural solo singing voice, my love of it and willingness to practice both singing and the piano made the difference.”
So much difference that he completed his major in vocal music, and became the Adult Choir director and Music Coordinator for Bethlehem Lutheran Church in St. Cloud. “This provided the opportunity to direct a fine choir, sing some tenor solos from Handel’s Messiah and serve as a substitute organist and pianist for services.”
When he taught, Keith used creative ways to teach music to his elementary school charges at Pierz Public School. With kindergartners, for example, on their first day Keith played a ukulele, and said, “Let’s walk,” like follow the leader. “Then I stop suddenly, and asked, “Why did we stop? Because the music stopped. We do what the music tells us to do.”
From then on Keith played a different piano song each time the kindergartners were at his door, music which told the kids what to do. “I played music so they could skip, gallop, jump, run, and the kids giggled and laughed. They have a natural love for music, and I would say 98 percent of them can sing on tune if their voices are freed up.”
One way of freeing their voices is to sing with their heads between their legs and upside down, which helps children find their head tones. Another method was the fire-truck siren. “Girls loved to sing in their chest voice and low register, like country western males. To get them out of that shouted strained sound, which is not natural, and into head tones, I used the imitation of fire sirens and wolf howls. Anything to get them to explore their full range.”
With grades 4-6 choir, Keith played The Star Spangled Banner for warm-up. “All 90 would come in, chattering and having fun, but when I played the introduction to the National Anthem, they stood with tall posture, facing the flag and sang. The song got their attention, and is a great song for children’s voices, because its range is so low to high.”
Teaching an adult choir is different than teaching grade schoolers, though Keith used some of the same methods, like the siren. “That takes the voice out of the throat and into the head cavities, so the sound can resonate and project better. Male voices can go up into falsetto so they feel they can go much higher. It’s like stretching for an athlete, and gets the blood flowing.”
Other unusual methods included using the “ng” sound. “I didn’t think adults would be comfortable putting their heads between their knees like the kids, but I wanted to get the singing sound to move up into the head cavities. I figured out that the ‘ng’ sounds raises the soft palate, and holds it, so the sound moves up into the forehead. I asked members to remember that feeling and use it when they were singing.”
Other methods include pressing your thumb and forefinger into your cheeks to create certain sounds; singing “loo” and keeping that sound while singing a song, pushing puffs of air out while feeling tummies, and more.
And the methods worked. “Sunday mornings in church I moved my arms, and a blend of sound like one voice comes from the choir, with so much expression and beauty. I didn’t do it, but all those people putting themselves together. It’s humbling, and it’s a high privilege for me to be involved in it.”
In early years of his 30 plus-year tenure at Bethlehem Lutheran Church, he worried whether singers would like his music choices. “But eventually I realized they enjoyed singing if we were very well prepared, and the music matched the lessons and theme of the service. I loved watching the faces of the choir members, realizing they were no different than kindergartners, loving music, and willing to work hard to have an adventure, and joy and beauty in their singing. Being a director was a very humbling experience.”
Advantages of Music
Music has many advantages in people’s lives, Keith said. They can enjoy singing, have social interactions and more. “Music teaches discipline, because it’s hard work to keep singing, or practicing the piano. Music develops the right side of the brain, and makes connections to the other side. Music can be experienced in many ways, everybody singing Happy Birthday, or to a country western tune at a Twins game. Music has a spiritual effect when it is sung in church, and people with dementia can sing old songs when they can’t remember anything else, because music is the last thing that leaves a person’s memory.”
Music also teaches muscle memory, as when playing the piano with a song that is fast and has many notes. “If I’m playing a Beethoven sonata and learn to play it fast, I don’t look and see every note on the page. My hands know what to do. With playing piano, that was my passion and persistence. I’m a slow learner, but if I learn it well, it stays with me.”
Passion in Music
So Keith has come all the way from knowing little about music to becoming a professional, a true rags to riches and American dream story. “Not because of my musical ability, but because of my passion for music.”