Piano Men: students find "medicine" in music
April 30, 2014
By Joe Stumpe
Call them The Four Pianists. Of the KU School of Medicine–Wichita, that is.
From the time they first arrived on campus, Joseph Baalmann, Jeff Cotter, Isaac Johnston, and Roger Klein have been playing the baby grand piano that sits in the school's west atrium.
They play on breaks from their classes and rounds, and their impromptu performances usually draw an appreciative audience of faculty, staff, and other students. (You're most likely to catch a performance in the afternoon or early evening.)
"We all know each other," Klein says of his fellow musicians. "I see the other guys playing, and it's kind of cool to walk in and say, 'I've always wanted to learn to play that piece.'"
Although it may not be obvious to their listeners, the four have distinct styles. Johnston, for example, is most likely to play classical music.
"Lately, I've played a lot of Chopin," he said. "I surprised my wife with a piece for our first anniversary. I thought it said a lot more than a card could."
Baalmann also plays classical selections, although he's been known to veer off into things he finds on YouTube, like a piece from the movie "Pirates of the Caribbean."
"Joseph hears something incredibly long or difficult and decides he wants to conquer it, and usually does," Cotter says.
Baalmann confirms that he loves to challenge his playing skills, and that it was Johnston who made him aware of the movie theme. "I thought, man ... we can play it. So that was my challenge, to show Isaac we could play that type of song."
Cotter says his parents put him in piano lessons at age 10 as an outlet for his energy. "It was extremely effective," Cotter recalls. "I took to it and loved it."
He plays mostly his own compositions, often improvising on the spot. "He has a really cool music-by-ear style," Baalmann says.
Klein (according to the others) is the most versatile of the four, having earned a minor in music as an undergraduate and from frequently performing.
"I was trained to play classical music," he says. "In college, I kind of switched to playing a lot of popular music and a more contemporary style, in addition to improvisation and composition." Johnson says Klein's hands "seem to move a little more effortlessly than ours."
Klein credits the school's Dean Garold Minns for making the piano available to students. Minns has asked the students to let him know when the Yamaha baby grand needs tuning.
"He's a big advocate. I think he likes to support music and recognize students' abilities outside of medicine," Klein says.
The students say they love it when passers-by stop to listen, but mostly they play for themselves.
"In high school, I was too cool to take lessons, but I got back to it," Cotter says. "It became a kind of medicine to me ... stress relief."
Johnston agrees, "It gives me a good balance."
All four pianists are fourth-year students who will graduate in May, but the music won't stop. At least one second-year student is an accomplished player, and will hopefully carry on the musical tradition.
Check out Baalmann's performance of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" theme song.