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Irma Allen rehearses "The Seal Lullaby" with the Wadena-Deer Creek senior high band.

Irma Allen to play piano with WDC Band at March 10

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Dana Pavek, WDC Schools

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When Irma Allen sits at the piano, her fingers glide effortlessly up and down the keys. Playing is second nature to her. After all, she's been at it for more than 87 years.

"I started piano lessons when I was in first grade and continued through 12th grade. My senior recital was in Wadena Memorial Auditorium in 1938," recalls the 93-year-old Allen.

Allen, who grew up and attended school in Wadena, started teaching the neighbor kids piano lessons when she was in high school. She credits her high school piano teacher, Doris Eleanor Geer, for instilling the passion for music in her.

After graduating from Wadena High School in 1938, Allen attended Moorhead State Teachers College where she received degrees in music and English. She would teach in New York Mills, Menahga and Wadena, during a time when band directors left school to fight in World War II. While teaching in Menahga, she met a tall, handsome Army soldier who had returned home from the war. The young man's name was Gene Allen. They were married on July 14, 1946 and made their home in Wadena where they raised two daughters, Norma and Marilynn.

While raising her family and passing on her love of music to her daughters, who learned to play the piano from their mother, Allen continued teaching piano to Wadena youths. Over the course of 77 years, she's taught an astonishing 350 piano students and she continues to teach piano today out of her home on Jefferson Street South — the same house she grew up in.

In 1996, she gave piano lessons to Sebastian Gahler, a foreign exchange student from Germany. Today, he is a professional musician in Germany. Last year, Rachel Papillon, who was Allen's pupil for 10 years, taught piano in India.

Her granddaughters accompanied the Wadena-Deer Creek High School Choir — Jennifer in 1989; Kimberly in 1997; and Allison in 2003. Grandson Allen accompanied vocal soloists in 2009 at Wadena-Deer Creek High School. All four grandchildren took lessons from "Grandma Irma."

Grandson Allen Uselman didn't exactly learn how to play piano the conventional way, by learning how to read notes. He says he started watching his grandma's hands when he was very young and memorized her movements.

"I started taking lessons from Grandma Irma when I was 5," says Uselman. "When I was 6 or 7, I eventually learned to play by ear. I still can't read a note of music today, which is kind of crazy. But any chance I get to sit at the piano, I play -- and I thank my grandma for sharing her gift of music with me."

In addition to teaching piano lessons, Irma directs the United Methodist Handbell Choir, is her church's organist, and serves as the pianist for the Wadena Rotary Club.

Jennifer (Carter) Westrum recalls being one of Irma's students in the mid-1980s. When Westrum began taking piano lessons from Irma, she just wanted to play the music. Because of Irma's high standards, she was insistent that Westrum learn the "theory" behind the notes and scales which create the music.

"Needless to say, I spent time each week completing theory—sometimes not embracing it as eagerly as Irma would have liked. As soon as I had an understanding of the theory, I found myself entered into a competition where theory was a large portion of my performance score," recalls Westrum.

Westrum remembers how if Irma suggested something, you usually did it!

"It was difficult to disagree with Irma, or tell her you weren't going to do something, when you had the opportunity to listen to her play during each of your lessons. It was effortless and you were willing to try anything if it would provide you the skills to play even a fraction as well as she did," says Westrum.

As a teacher, Irma instilled lifelong lessons in her students about the importance of striving to be your best. She challenged her students each and every week even when it would have been easier to concede.

"She pushed in a very caring manner and followed through on goals from week-to-week. She taught us the importance of following through which is another lifelong skill," says Westrum, adding. "Little does Irma know, but I set one of my life goals while sitting at her piano -- I wanted to have one just like hers. It now sits in my living room!"

When Wadena-Deer Creek High School band director Lisa Weniger moved to Wadena in 1993, she first knew Allen as the "Weather Watcher from Wadena" on KSAX-TV.

"That's how I first knew her. Then I come to find out, she's this wonderful piano teacher and pianist," says Weniger.

This summer, while Weniger poured over musical compositions, trying to decide what pieces the WDC band would perform for the upcoming school year, she found a piece that featured a beautiful, moving piano arrangement by one of her favorite composers, Eric Whitacre, called "The Seal Lullaby."

As it goes in a small town like Wadena, Weniger ran into Allen at The Boondocks Café. Weniger told Allen about her dream of featuring her as a piano soloist with the senior high band.

"I visited with Irma about my idea and she liked it. She said, 'Send me the music.' Then she called me and said, 'I can do this,' " recalls Weniger.

Since the first week of February, Allen has been rehearsing with the senior high band nearly once a week. Husband, Gene, is at the rehearsals too and serves as chauffeur for his wife and, of course, her biggest fan. He sits in a chair close by Irma and watches his wife's fingers glide across the ivory keys. You can see in his eyes how proud he is of her and the lovely music he's enjoyed hearing over the past 66 years of marriage.

"Our home and our life has been filled with music," says Gene, smiling. "Sometimes, I'd have to take piano students home because mom or dad couldn't pick them up. But I didn't mind a bit."

Weniger says having Irma rehearse with the WDC band has been a positive influence on her students. She says students are amazed at how this 93 years young woman is still playing piano beautifully and with such zest and passion.

"Irma has had the time of her life rehearsing with the band. This is a first for both of us -- having Irma play with a group and our band featuring a soloist," Weniger says. "I can't tell you how excited I am to see Irma perform with my students at our concert. It's going to be such a special night and I hope the community comes to see this wonderful collaboration."

WDC invites the community to the senior high band concert on Monday, March 10 at 7:30 p.m. in the middle/high school gymnasium.

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