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Stepping away from the keys

Piano teacher Sandi Carlson had a problem with her students—they never wanted to quit.  While many kids beg their parents to let them stop going to piano lessons, practicing scales, and preparing for recitals, Sandi’s students ate it up and asked for more.  That’s how she acquired a total of 580 students over a period of 37 years, so many that her recitals extended over two evenings. But this spring, she finally decided it was time to retire. Still, she says, “I don’t know if I really felt ready.  Some days I did and some days I didn’t.”      “I probably would have retired a year earlier, but some of the kids I had this year as seniors had been with me since first grade, and I didn’t want to bail out on them.”  Several begged her to continue at least one more year.  One mother asked if she would continue to teach her girls, promising not to tell anybody. Her answer was no. Sandi grew up in Staples, where music was a normal part of her family life.      “Get-togethers always ended up with everyone playing whatever instruments they had or singing,” she recalls.   Her mother, Mildred, played piano and her father, George, played trumpet, sometimes for dance bands.      “Dad played for every military funeral in Staples while he was still alive,” she says. He had a method, which she witnessed many times, of creating an echo effect in Taps by turning slowly around as he played.    In fact, family legend says George Klos, a member of the Army Reserves at one time, played Taps at the funeral of someone in President Franklin Roosevelt’s family, possibly the president himself.         “I started piano lessons two days after I turned five and continued taking lessons straight through until I graduated from college,” Sandi says.       She attended Staples High School and St. Cloud State, graduating in 1960 with degrees in Business Education and Music.  Meanwhile, her future husband, Bruce, whom she had known since they were both in the same Sunday School class at age three, attended Concordia College, Moorhead, later earning a Masters Degree from Bowling Green State University, Ohio, in 1974.  They married in 1965. Bruce taught chemistry and physics at Melrose High. He retired nine years ago.      Sandi taught school at Wadena for two years, then was a receptionist at Melrose Hospital.  She retired from that position just before daughter Michelle was born.  In 1973, when Michelle’s little brother, Jim, was three, she started giving piano lessons in her home.      As they grew older, Sandi tried teaching her kids piano, but, she says, “It was too much Mother and not enough teacher.”  Both Michelle and Jim learned their keyboard techniques from the other Melrose piano legend, Vi Berns.  Michelle played for high school and summer musicals from ninth grade on.  Jim switched to drums and had leads in many musicals.      Twenty years ago, Sandi started giving piano lessons to the students of Sacred Heart Elementary, Freeport.  Three years later, she did the same for St. Mary’s Elementary, Melrose.  Students were allowed out of class for their half-hour lessons.  Others squeezed in their keyboard sessions as their school and sports schedules allowed, sometimes arriving at their teacher’s house at seven or seven thirty AM, or after school at six or six thirty.  During the Christmas season, many of them entertained patrons at the Melrose Credit Union by playing carols.  Sandi found a little relief from this grueling schedule by eventually discontinuing summer lessons.      She didn’t like to give up on any of her students.      “I never showed anybody the door,” she says.   “I talked with their parents, and if they wanted them to continue, they continued.  Some had slow starts and I didn’t think they’d do anything, and they surprised me.”  She especially liked “kids who are never, ever afraid to try anything hard, like Addie Mueller.  It was her final recital for me, and she decided she wanted to play Debussy’s Claire de lune.  I studied that when I was a freshman in college.  She made up her mind she was going to do it.  I don’t know how many hours that girl practiced, but she did it and did it beautifully. I sat with my mouth wide open.”  Another student, Mary McClanahan, did equally well with a difficult Chopin piece.      Some of Sandi’s students have gone on to compete in the Miss Melrose pageant, with piano as their talent, and she was there to coach them.  In 1997 Christine Scherping won as Miss Melrose and went on to become Queen of the Lakes at the Minneapolis Aquatennial.  .  One of Sandi’s students, Sarah Dyrseth Kluempke, is herself a piano teacher, as is Ashley Burg Klaphake.  She points proudly to a picture of the three 2010 Melrose High co-valedictorians—Grant Niehaus, Kayla Anderson, and Christine Kluempke—and notes that they all sat at her keyboard at one time.      Sandi’s daughter, Michelle, a reading specialist lives in Columbia Heights with her husband, Jeff Ellering, and sons Ryan, 15 and Zachary, 12. Both grandsons are studying piano.      “Ryan plays piano with his high school band, and at church.  Zach is in jazz and regular band.  They are both very good and pick it up quickly,” Sandi says.  Son Jim, a Hospital Unit Coordinator at Fairview-Southdale Hospital, and wife Christina have sons Conan, 7, and Corbin, 5.      “Conan and Corbin hope to start lessons.  They’re getting Grandma’s piano,” Sandi says.  “They both show an interest in the piano.  Corbin will sit and pick out melodies with one finger.”  It warms her heart when a grandson asks, “Grandma, can I go to the piano?”      Sandi plans to spend her retirement years traveling, visiting with her mother, who is in the Staples Care Center, taking rosemaling classes in St. Cloud, and learning the exacting art of lace painting on wood.  She plans to research her family history, including digging deeper into the mystery of her father’s part in the Roosevelt funeral and also learning more about a Civil War veteran uncle.  An avid reader, she is going to spend time with her new Nook and listen to the 3000 songs on her iPod, a feat Bruce says can’t be done. And she will still play her piano every day.     ”It’s too much of a habit and part of my life to sit down and play.”

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