Phyllis Dalager: Still Playing on the Black Keys

Note:  I wrote this a few years ago along with my Comp I students.  It’s about time I published it!  Happy Mother’s Day 2016, Mom:)

It still amazes me. Mom would be in the kitchen and I’d need a break from my piano lessons, so I’d call out to her, “Hey mom! What’s this note?” Then I’d pick a key on the piano and play it.

“A Flat,“ she’d say.

She was always right. Impressive as this is, “perfect pitch” just scratches the surface of Phyllis Dalager’s musical talent. Though she was never a concert pianist, she has maintained her musical abilities at a high level and always found ways to share them with her community. She maximized the natural talent with which she was born through the sacrifices that her parents and others made for her and her sheer dedication to her instrument.

As I’ve noted, she has something musicians call “perfect pitch,” which means she can sing or recognize any note on the musical spectrum. For example, in her choir at Gustavus Adolphus, she gave the pitch for any a cappella piece the choir was singing, a job usually reserved for the pianist. She just hummed it. This is a talent that can’t be taught. Long before that, her parents recognized her natural musical talent when, at age three, she sat down at the piano and picked out hymns. What’s more, she played on the black keys (most beginners start out on the white keys). Mom had more natural musical talent than most people get after years of study, but the people around her recognized that this talent would need to be developed.

When she was seven years old, Grandma knew that Mom would benefit from lessons that they couldn’t afford. In 1941, very few families could afford any sort of extravagances, let alone the services of Mrs. Rustad, the best and most expensive piano teacher in town. To make up the difference, Grandma offered to clean house and iron for the Rustads, and soon, Mom’s talent took off. “I remember staring at a page in John Thompson’s pink Book for Girls when I first connected the notes on the page with what I was playing,” says Mom. “It was definitely an Aha! moment.” Much later in high school, another teacher, who knew that she couldn’t teach Mom any more, offered to pay for her first ten lessons at MacPhail School of Music in Minneapolis, so every other Saturday, Mom would take a two hour bus trip to further her studies. Somehow Grandpa and Granma came up with the money to continue those lessons beyond the first ten.

All of this wouldn’t have mattered if Mom hadn’t worked hard. Her pilgrimages to Minneapolis are evidence of her dedication, and when she was in college, “I practiced about two and a half hours a day, though probably not on weekends. I did have a social life, you know,” she adds. As a senior, her hard work culminated a Beethoven piano concerto played with the Mankato-St. Peter Symphony. Many years later, I remember Mom sitting down at the piano for at least an hour every day, which is a practice she continues even now into her 70s. No one can say that Phyllis Dalager is not dedicated

I admire Mom’s musical ability, and what I admire most is how she humbly shares it. She shared it with her family. All five kids took lessons from her at some point (some with more success than others), and most of us continue to play some kind of music. She also shares with her community, too. Through the years, she’s been a piano teacher to hundreds, an elementary music teacher, a church choir director, and accompanist at countless community functions. My favorite story is of her playing for the Miss Thief River Falls pageant the night of having her wisdom teeth pulled. “I was completely out of it, and honestly, I don’t remember a thing” she says. Her community is a better place for all the music she’s shared. “It’s a gift I’ve been given, and I thank God for it,“ she says. It’s a natural gift, and one that she was able to make last a lifetime because of the sacrifices of others and her own dedication.

Dalager, Phyllis. Personal Interview. 25 September 2011.


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