A Tale of Four Musicians

Local music-world veterans know the ups and downs of the business.

It’s raining in St. Louis Park, and on Hestia Abeyesekera’s front porch, a cat with luxuriant fur strides across the keys of an upright piano. I sit down to play it. Of the five pianos in the house, Hestia’s students prefer this one. The keys are lightweight (the seventh from the right sags like a droopy eyelid), so the kids’ small fingers can press them down easily.

“Speak the notes aloud as you play them to keep time,” says Romayne Abeyesekera, Hestia’s daughter and a teacher at her mother’s Kinderhaus of Musik, based out of the house. “We don’t use metronomes.”

They don’t use regular notation, either. I’m playing “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Like their students, I haven’t played piano before. And, thankfully, like the cat, I don’t need to read music to know how—just a better sense of rhythm.

I align my fingers over a section of keys, as if to demonstrate “home row.”

“These fingers,” Romayne gestures to my ring fingers, “are four.” Simple enough. My middle and pointer fingers become three and two, respectively. A book in front of me notates the melody using just these numbers. As I play, I say which pair of fingers is playing: “four, three, two, three, four four four … ”

Romayne points to the book: this version ends in three notes—“two two two.”

I didn’t notice because my ear knew the song. My brain knew the fingerings. I just played.

Hestia, who wrote a book that was one of a four-part series, The Brainway Piano Series, watches me succeed after mere seconds of teaching. This is the point of the method, which comes from the Montessori school. “You learn music like you learn a language,” Hestia says. “A two-year-old child saying, ‘mama,’ ‘papa’—they don’t know how to read that. Only later on do they find the symbols for what they are saying.”

In the same way, I learned the keys before I knew “Oh, that’s a C I played,” as Hestia puts it.

This means Hestia and her daughter teach children who can’t read sentences, let alone sheet music. Hestia, 83, still teaches 10 students at Kinderhaus of Musik. She has been honored by the World’s Who’s Who of Women for Distinguished Achievement in the Field of Education.

It’s hard, then, to imagine an 11-year-old Hestia bored at piano lessons in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Back then, she took two-hour train rides to and from her lessons. At home—if her father wasn’t around—she played boogie-woogie by ear.

Even today, Hestia doesn’t quite recall how she chose music instead of following her father’s footsteps into law.

She looks out the window. She remembers excelling in the rigorous performance exams that landed her in the U.S. in the early 1970s, teaching Montessori in Edina before moving to St. Louis Park. Looking back further, she remembers music all over the mansion where she grew up. She remembers standing out of the way, in the corner, enchanted, while older houseguests played boogie-woogie on the piano.

Today, her students perform her calypso-flavored take on Beethoven’s Für Elise. They syncopate complex, hopping rhythms before they can read notes.

Her legacy aligns with another local talent’s, insofar as both found music in the world rather than in the classroom. Hestia brought it here from Sri Lanka, and St. Louis Park producer, jazz guitarist and music teacher Don Strong carried it from Queens, New York.

Don Strong

After a couple martinis, Strong’s father, a violinist, would pick up his trumpet, on which he was self-taught. He wasn’t bad, but suffice it to say that when Strong had to choose an instrument in the fourth grade, presented with the choice between that trumpet and an old plywood guitar, he chose the guitar.

He figured music was in his genes, but it hurt his fingers to play. And he just wasn’t interested. His first guitar teacher, an ex-Marine drill sergeant, once told Strong, “When you were little, I didn’t think you would ever get it.”

Then something clicked. As an English and music major at Wesleyan University, Strong zeroed in on jazz composition. What were the elements of a song that, say, could enrapture young Hestia as she listened to her friends play boogie-woogie?

In the mid-1980s, Def Jam hired Strong as a freelance songwriter. He produced modern, contemporary urban music in the style of Prince, early Madonna and Michael Jackson.

Eventually, another snag: Strong realized “to succeed as a writer-producer, you needed to be thick as thieves with everybody there … and I didn’t feel comfortable with that.” So he “stopped trying to run with the wolves in Manhattan.”

After a stint teaching music in Harlem and on an Indian reservation, Strong and his wife, who works in health care, looked at Minnesota for work. They chose St. Louis Park because it is near both the cities and nature.

Now Strong teaches songwriting classes and produces the work of rising local artists at his St. Louis Park-based studio, Alteratio Creative Space. He produced Chastity Brown’s first album, Do the Best You Can, in 2007, while also managing Brown, Minneapolis's very own banjo-playing soul singer. This year, Minneapolis singer-songwriter Mayyadda released an EP, eightynine, after Strong met her at an open-mic at restaurant and music venue Moto-i.

Strong cuts across genres as a producer—from Mayyadda’s soul-inflected folk to the Bob Dylan-inspired country on Dave Dvorak’s recent full-length album, Things You Cannot Measure.

Strong, who also studied screenwriting, compares producing to directing. “If you’re a film director, you have to interpret and bring creative vision to whatever the screenwriter wrote.”

That means for Mayyadda’s song “Same Room,” Strong encouraged her to beat-box (a technique of percussing with vocals) in lieu of using instrumental percussion. He thought it would complement the song’s hip-hop-sounding chord progression. Beat-boxing wasn’t in her wheelhouse, but she enjoyed it, he says.

Likewise, Strong pushed Dvorak to include a James Brown-like horn section in a track, “Clumsy,” where Dvorak couldn’t hear it at first.

“It’s like in sports,” Strong says. “The producer is the coach, the musicians and the artists are team players. The coach has an idea—how we’re going play this game. But you need talented people who can execute those ideas.”

Strong fostered that kind of team effort in the Twin Cities when he started a Meetup group in 2014 called Songwriters Circle through which he met Dvorak. Convening monthly, the group has already released a compilation album called Let Them Sing.

Tim Mahoney & Lara Dietrich
 
St. Louis Park singer-songwriter Tim Mahoney remembers the days when vocal artists featured on Strong’s Let Them Sing would have had a fairly straightforward shot at putting out albums of their own.

A bootstrap musician, Mahoney went from fronting a band with his friends at Minnetonka High School to selling out the Cabooze in 1996—a crowd of 1,500 people there to hear his original material. “Nowadays, that just doesn’t happen,” he says, adding that The Cabooze books national headliners.

From his time as a contestant on NBC’s The Voice, Mahoney learned how to play the game. Where some might have griped about artistic integrity, Mahoney realized that in this market of Spotify and YouTube and Pandora, where so much music is available all the time, that televised platform can only help.

Still, when it comes down to it, he connects to St. Louis Park, where he’s lived for 20 years. It’s close to RiverRock Studios in Minneapolis. He gets to be grand marshal in St. Louis Park parades. He knows his neighbors.

But if that increasingly competitive music marketplace—that “running with the wolves” mentality—has at last caught up to Minnesota, local music teacher Lara Dietrich might have an answer.

When Dietrich thinks about what drew her away from jazz and deeper into orchestral music, she describes her own experience of a sense of community within an orchestra that sounds ideal, utopian, impossible: where every individual is needed and appreciated just as much as the next—“whether you’re playing first trombone or third,” she says.

I might know only “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on the piano, but I’ve played both of those trombone parts myself.

Sitting in the sunlit front room of her Maestoso Music Studio, where she teaches trombone and piano, Dietrich jokes with me about the “trombone personality type” after she compares the feeling of playing in a group to that of playing sports—similar to the way Strong described making music.

Way back in the 1940s, Hestia found the bug that so many find in boogie-woogie: an exciting, individual spark that draws people in. Dietrich found it, too. But now, like Hestia, she values the chance to act inside a community.

Just a few blocks from Maestoso, in fact, sits St. Louis Park High School. Sometimes, after school gets out, students will walk straight over for lessons. Hestia could tell you, it certainly beats a two-hour train ride.