Shirley Remes

The Pianists of Elgin: Shirley Remes

Every Thursday, visitors at the Gail Borden Library can push the revolving door and transition into a kind and pleasant world where volunteer pianists play for a wide ranging audience, curious children circle the grand piano, and adults pass by slowing their pace to enjoy the melodies.

The talented volunteers were asked to share a little bit about themselves and their musical career. This month, Shirley Remes and John LaBorn provide words of encouragement and the power to connect abroad through music.

Shirley Remes never thought at a young age she would enjoy music from the 30s and 40s, let alone that she would perform her favorite Cole Porter and Gershwin brothers songs publicly on a grand piano at the local library as an adult. She would have found both unusual.

However, when her husband read the inquiry for pianists in the Gail Borden Library newsletter, he encouraged her to apply. “I don’t know who came up with the idea to have piano players at the library, I’ve never heard of it before. I was concerned initially that it would bother some people, you always think of a library as such a quiet place… ” said Shirley.

At seven, she began piano lessons and would play all through high school. There, Mrs. Caliendo would become her favorite piano teacher. “My mom enlisted me in piano lessons, quite against my will at first.” Later, an extended break would follow while working and raising her four children, “…I went 50 years without playing, and have just returned to it,” said Shirley.

She credits members at her church who also encouraged her to resume playing and notes retirement has provided the time needed to dedicate to regular practice. Shirley when asked what advice she gives for any piano player who wants to perform answered, “ It is normal I think to be nervous at first, I was. But I just made myself push through this and now I am fairly comfortable with playing in front of others.”

And for the Bravo reader who also plays, she adds, “So don’t be discouraged if you haven’t played for years, or you are nervous in front of others. You can overcome these obstacles!”

Shirley includes playing by ear as desired skill in her advice for people who want to learn to play the piano, “I would say find a teacher who can teach you to play by ear as well as read music. Unfortunately, I cannot play by ear. I envy people who can.”

Over the time she has volunteered, Shirley has developed a large collection of songs ready to be performed on Thursdays, “When I started, I had no [playlists], now I have 28 plus seasonal playlists so I have a lot more variety.” That variety still includes something for everyone: “…I typically rotate two songs of [the 30s and 40s] era with light classical and more contemporary pieces,” said Shirley.

The results from her preparation have not gone unnoticed and she believes anyone who has the ability and would like to share should also say yes to this opportunity.

“…The patrons have told me repeatedly how much they like it, and at the Elgin library, the sound goes up through the center circular staircase and fills the entire library, and people tell me how much they love it. One lady slipped out of the computer room one day to tell me that everyone in there was enjoying the music immensely,” she recalled.

Today, she also volunteer-plays at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Elgin at noon on Fridays. At times, she performs background music for local clubs and events. In the past, she has played at her church.

“I’m very grateful for these venues where I can play now because it encourages me to practice and learn new pieces. Plus, it is very gratifying when I can see that people are surprised to see me playing and when they tell me how much they enjoy it,” says Shirley.

In addition to playing the piano, she enjoys reading, knitting, and cooking.

Upcoming April performances:
From 4:30 – 5:30 p.m. on Thursdays at Gail Borden Library.
At noon – 1:30 p.m. on Fridays at St. Joseph’s Hospital.

This article was first published in March 2019 for Bravo Magazine, 5.4. (part of Marquee Media) as part of a series.

Writer and creator of a character called Subbie. I'm host of the Move Up Podcast, dedicated to all things that help improve your life, one step at a time. I enjoy reviewing blog tools and apps. I send a weekly newsletter with updates and tips.

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