BEMIDJI – There are many ways to bring some comfort and peace to the soul and two women in Bemidji are at the forefront: mother Barbara Geving and daughter Frances Van Dorn.
Geving plays the piano from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. each Thursday in the east lobby of Sanford Medical Center, Van Dorn travels the world planting peace poles with the belief that peace is possible one person at a time.
On a recent sub-zero winter day in the cozy home/studio of Van Dorn, festooned with musical instruments from string to reed to brass, both women talked about the playing of the Army Field Band on the steps of the capitol, the Marine Band, The President’s Own for the enjoyment of the people and how it impacted the Iowa natives.
While on a summer driving adventure with her young daughter to visit relatives in North Carolina, Geving traveled to our nation’s capital, Washington, D.C. It was a life changing event for mother and daughter. The lure of a whole new world of cultural and musical opportunities not easily attained in their small hometown was more than they could ignore.
Geving’s epiphany was immediate and she quickly rented a small apartment in northern Virginia so that her daughter could start the school year on time in September 1966.
And so began the life changing event for the eighth-grade English teacher and her grade school musically gifted child, who started to play piano as a second-grader and then asked to study the cello after being introduced to Bach. And that was when Geving realized her daughter was serious about being a musician.
A daughter who had grown up hearing her mother play the piano and now could listen to many other fine musicians.
“We could hear the best of the best, we could visit museums and enjoy all that the area offered musically and culturally. There were concerts on the mall and on the steps of the capitol. We loved being there. It was all free, you see,” Geving said.
“I studied with the principal cellist of the National Symphony at that time,” Van Dorn said. “I was a member of the Northern Virginia Youth Orchestra while still in high school and we toured everywhere, it was a wonderful opportunity. I grew up with the Smithsonian.”
It was possibly one of the players in the Army Band, Patrick Riley, now a retired Bemidji State University string professor, that Van Dorn heard perform during those days. Who could have known then that they would meet again in the little northern Minnesota town of Bemidji?
Van Dorn came to BSU intending to major in chemistry, but when Riley arrived at BSU after being discharged from the Army, she had a cello teacher once again.
That was in her second year and she has never looked back to regret the decision to change majors and study music. As an aside, both of Van Dorn’s daughters – Laura and Leah – majored in chemistry and are successful in the fields of science and medicine.
Van Dorn stayed in Bemidji, graduated from BSU, married, raised a family and has maintained a 35-year musical career. She played cello for the Bemidji Symphony Orchestra for many years and also with the Amato String Quartet with Roberta Sellon, Ann Hayes and Lenore Siems. They were a popular quartet that performed for weddings and special occasions in Bemidji and once had a special on public television. Van Dorn now feels she is needed as a teacher of aspiring musicians and is a certified Suzuki method instructor.
Van Dorn devotes much of her time teaching babies from 6 months old to retirees how to appreciate and play an instrument. Whether at her Bemidji studio, at Schoolcraft Learning Community where she leads three bands and teaches piano to all first- and second-grade students to her Skype students who have moved away and still want to keep her as their teacher, Van Dorn remembers Suzuki’s famous quote about making “fine and noble human beings” of his music students. She carries the philosophy through her teaching life and peace efforts. That nobility is obvious in Van Dorn who holds music workshops on the Hawaiian island of Kauai for those working with those diagnosed with autism.
This year Van Dorn added ukulele to her list of string instruction which includes the violin, viola, cello and harp. The ukulele is gaining in popularity primarily because it is easier for youngsters to finger than a full-sized guitar.
“And now as a teacher, I have had many of my cello students go to Minnesota All-State Orchestra,” Van Dorn said. “Right now I have a violin student, Emily Kivi, who is in the ninth grade and last year made it to all state as an eighth-grader, one of only three in the state of Minnesota who made it as a violinist.”
While Van Dorn was living in Bemidji, her mother stayed in D.C. and changed her career from teaching to office work. After spending about 20-years working as a legal secretary, Geving retired to Bemidji in 1998 and again took up her childhood passion.
“I played the piano as a child and enjoy it to today,” Geving said. “When I retired to Bemidji, I started taking piano lessons again, now with Margaret Maxwell. I practice regularly and am happy to finally have a set time that people can hear me; that is, of course, when there are not other activities in that space. It’s a wonderful grand piano, a Gulbransen.”
Geving takes Paul Bunyan Transit from her apartment to the hospital on the day she volunteers. Sometimes people will just sit and listen; perhaps meditate a bit or gain courage to go up to visit a sick relative or friend, dream of days gone by and softly hum to a familiar hymn or love song. Geving claims to likes playing more every time she is there and appreciates when someone stops by to say a quick “thank you” or enjoin in conversation.
The next time you are at Sanford Bemidji Medical Center and see Geving at the piano, she is a senior with white hair and lovely, big dark brown eyes, stop by to say hello and perhaps request a favorite melody.