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A friend of mine posts a daily series on his Facebook page, he calls “From my heart and home.” Dan is a very accomplished pianist and composer. Last Friday, on day one hundred thirty, he offered his rendition of Leonard Cohen’s, Hallelujah. “…today, my heart is full.” Dan wrote, saying he finds great solace and inspiration in that song. I do as well, so I gave it a listen.
While listening, I watched the video with Dan’s fingers so gracefully dancing and floating over the keys. He makes it look so easy. I thought about an old episode of the television show MASH, titled Morale Victory. Major Charles Winchester, had operated on a patient whose leg was badly injured. Being the top-notch surgeon that his character was, Winchester boasted to Private Sheridan, that he had skillfully saved his leg.
Looking at his bandaged right hand, Sheridan asked what happened. The doctor explained there was nerve damage and the patient would have partial loss of dexterity in three of his fingers. The private wept. Winchester, expecting praise and gratuity, didn’t understand. “Your hand will look perfectly normal,” he said, “but I saved your leg!”
Private Sheridan cried, “I don’t care about my leg. My hands are my life. I’m a concert pianist.” That was a powerful scene.
Winchester tried to convince the younger man, who was feeling hopeless, not to abandon his talent. “There are other ways to share your gift.” Charles brought sheet music for the left hand only written for Paul Wittgenstein. (a real concert pianist who lost his right arm in WWI and upon whom Sheridan’s character was inspired.) Winchester pleaded with the musician, “The gift does not lie in your hand.” He said, “I can play the notes, but I cannot make music. The true gift is in your head and your heart and your soul.” I thought about those words as I watched Dan’s video. Many people can play the notes, but… Responding to Dan’s touch, the piano became alive; together they made beautiful music.
I was in high school when I first came to know about Dan. Although he was several class years ahead of me, we had the same vocal music teacher; Merlin Schneider – a legend.
Mr. Schneider was teaching Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus, to the sophomore choir. The tenors, of which I was one, were struggling with the line, “and He shall reign forever and ever.” The word He, hits a high A. That’s a pretty high note for a bunch of boys whose voices had recently changed.
The tenor section practiced the line over and over. Each time we sounded more like cars pulling into a service garage with bad brakes. Really screechy, bad brakes. Mr. Schneider stopped and went to his record player. One of those vintage players that looked like a suitcase when the top was closed.
He opened the lid, carefully removed a black vinyl album from the sleeve and placed it on the platter. He moved the tone arm over, setting the needle on the record. It was the Hallelujah Chorus. When it came to the part that we were having so much difficulty with, the tenors sang smoothly and with ease: “And HE shall reign for ever and ever.” Mr. Schneider moved the needle back and played the part several more times. “That is what it sounds like when you do it right. Now let’s do it again - this time with confidence, men.”
Mr. Schneider told us the album was recorded by the Ottumwa High School, Class of 1971. Dan Knight was one of the tenors in the choir. I was impressed. He hit that high A like it was a simple mid-range note.
After school, I went to the radio station and looked through the Christmas records. Sure enough, we had a copy of the album. I asked Dad if I could take the record home to practice. He said that would be fine, so long as I didn’t forget where it came from.
At home, I played the song over and over again, singing along, convincing myself, if that Dan Knight guy could hit that A – so can I. I remembered Mr. Schneider’s instructions: “Don’t pinch your throat. Push from the diaphragm. Let it roll out naturally.”
It was time for the last number in the Christmas concert. The juniors and seniors were still on the risers onstage. The sophomore choir was seated in the first few rows of the auditorium. We all stood up in perfect unison; Mr. Schneider would have it no other way. (We actually practiced standing and sitting.) The strings ensemble began playing the introduction. The entire audience stood up and together we all sang the Hallelujah Chorus. When we came to the line, I hit it perfectly and with confidence: “and HE shall reign for ever and ever.” When the song ended, the audience applauded. While some of the tenors still had “brake trouble,” I smiled and silently thanked Dan for his hours of rehearsing with me until I was able to hit that note smoothly.
I restarted Dan’s video, listening again as he played his rendition of Cohen’s Hallelujah.
Taken by the sense of emotion expressed through his music, I drifted off in thought, remembering the first time I had met Dan Knight in person. It was nearly thirty years after I had first learned of him through a common high school music teacher. Through generous donations, the new Bridgeview Center in Ottumwa was able to purchase a very beautiful, brand new Steinway & Sons Concert Grand Piano. Among an impressive list of other notable organizations, Dan is a performing artist and composer for Steinway & Sons. He was coming home to perform on the new piano for his hometown.
A man of distinguished appearance, Dan was easy to pick out in the crowd. I was able to spend a few minutes chatting with him. I’ll admit to being a bit starstruck, but was also taken by his humility; how easy it was to speak with him. It was like talking to any ordinary kid from a small town – but Dan went on to make it big.
I wanted to tell him of the positive influence he had on me and how he had helped me, an awkward high school sophomore, gain confidence in my singing and learn the Hallelujah Chorus. I wanted to tell him a lot of things, but we only had a few moments. This was a homecoming of sorts and other folks were waiting to talk to him as well. It was really good to finally meet him.
I had listened to several of Dan’s prior performances in his series. For some reason the Leonard Cohen piece really captivated me, reaching my soul. After listening for a third time, I wanted to hear more. I scrolled back through his wall to the previous post, but it wasn’t a musical performance - it was a story he had written. I read it, then read it again. It now made sense to me what Dan meant in this post, “…today, my heart is full.”
I won’t attempt to paraphrase his writing. A story of unfortunate happenings and circumstances I never knew of. So, with his blessing, here is Dan Knight’s story.
I was riding a motorcycle on the south side of Ottumwa, Iowa on that evening forty-nine years ago, when I was hit by a drunk driver. That accident changed the course of my life forever.
I had a full-ride scholarship to Drake University, as an applied voice/opera major.
I lost my voice. The voice that remained after two years of hospitalizations was not the voice I once had.
I lost my scholarship, and most of the ability to earn another one.
I nearly lost my life. I had blood clots in my lungs that were so large that they could be seen on x-rays. I had pericarditis, and pleural effusions, and sepsis that nearly killed me.
But I continued. And the piano, eventually, became my voice.
So July 24 is a date that marks my death, in a way -- it was the death of the person I was, and of the career I had hoped to have.
And it marked the rebirth of the new me: the person who pulled himself up off the street after his right leg had been smashed, and stood. The person who taught himself to walk again, after ten months in a cast. The person who lost his golden voice, but sang again anyway. The person who made the piano his career.
And so we continue, all of us. We are broken, all of us, and damaged, in obvious and not-so-obvious ways. But still we continue, with the understanding that on some days, just managing a smile is an achievement.
I cheer for us, all of us, who, in our own ways, somehow find the courage to continue, day after day, with love, and hope, and conviction, and courage, and purpose.” Dan Knight.
Wow. I had no idea. His words; his story, choked me up. I suddenly realized the man I thought I knew – well, there’s much more to know. Read again his last two paragraphs. There’s a message, which most of us – probably all of us, need to hear today.
I don’t know why listening to his performance of Hallelujah and the expression in his music, reminded me of that MASH episode. This was before reading the story he posted earlier that day. Dan’s accident happened almost nine years before the television show aired and that episode was inspired by a true story from more than sixty-five years prior. The similarities and happenstance were most uncanny.
Major Winchester told Private Sheridan: “The gift does not lie in your hand.” He said, “The true gift is in your head and your heart and your soul.” Charles went on, “You can shut it off forever, or you can find new ways to share your gift with the world.”
Dan found a new way; a new voice, “…the piano, eventually, became my voice.” When I heard his rendition of Leonard Cohen’s, Hallelujah, I came to understand, Dan’s voice is as loud, clear and expressive as ever. May your gift of music, your voice, sing to us, my friend, for many years to come. Peace, always.
Here is a link to Dan’s rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” if you would like to listen.