The 74-year-old Knabe grand piano sits silent in the room behind them. But the three women sipping tea at the small dining room table feel the music settle into them with the quiet joy only an old, beloved companion can bring.
“It's like food,” Dee Netzel, 86, says. “I couldn't imagine life without it.”
“It's a passion,” says Donita Banks, 77, “a compulsion.”
The piano belongs to the third woman, the tiniest, just now able to sit at the bench after two months battling a back injury.
Rita Jo Tensly, 84, says simply: “I want to die at the piano.”
They call themselves “sisters” — Dee from a small Wisconsin town, Rita from New York City and Donita from Pueblo. All classical pianists, a love for music binds them tightly.
But what brought them together originally was the Denver alumnae chapter of Sigma Alpha Iota, an international music fraternity for women they joined while in college.
Donita, the chapter's archivist who chronicles the organization's history in carefully constructed scrapbooks, spreads open an album on the table and points to a picture of smiling women, the SAI Singers.
“There's Dee and there's me. We had a bicentennial program.” 1976.
She turns to another page and another picture. 1995.
Rita: “There I am in the front row.”
Donita: “We were looking a little younger then.”
All three burst into laughter.
Another album contains photos of revered member Lela Putney, whose 104th birthday they celebrated in 2008. She left Denver several years ago to live near family and died at 108. Donita added the obituary and stories of her life to the scrapbook.
Donita, who joined in 1960 and is one of the longest-running members, is adamant the SAI alumnae chapter was a key ingredient to Lila's longevity.
“What has kept us going,” she says, “has been music, friendship and service.”
The chapter has 44 members from their mid-20s to Dee, the oldest active member. About 25 attend monthly meetings from September to June in homes and churches throughout the metro area, wherever a good piano can be found.
“I think one of the neat things about our group now is we are online,” Dee says, “and as careers bring people to our area, they look us up online and they find us.”
The website also brings younger women to the graying chapter.
Dee: “I love being with young people.”
“It keeps me young,” Rita says.
Dee: “We really aren't categorized by age. … Music is just music.”
“They like us for what we are,” Rita says. “Musicians.”
Donita, an only child, began playing at 7 when her parents brought home an old, Baldwin Acrosonic upright piano, signed by pianist Amparo Iturbi, sister of the famed pianist José Iturbi of Spain.
“Really?” Rita asks.
“Mmmhmmm,” Donita says, smiling, remembering. “I loved piano from the beginning.”
In junior high school, she began accompanying the singers at church. In high school, she played for a singer who performed for service organizations and then was hired to accompany dancers at the Pueblo Conservatory of Music. She attended the University of Colorado on scholarship where a professor introduced her to contemporary music.
Her son, her first child, was just seven weeks old when she accepted a job as youth choir director at a Lakewood church, the start to a career as a freelance musician who combined one-woman shows with choir directing.
“It came to be a way of life,” Donita says. And when she battled breast cancer two years ago, she couldn't wait to play again. “I had to get back to my music. Yes, I had to get back to my regular life.”
Rita was 10 when her parents surprised her with the same piano in her sitting room for her birthday. “I took to it like a duck takes to water,” she says.
She attended Juilliard and graduated from the University of Miami in Florida, then moved to Denver in 1953 and taught elementary school music for 28 years.
She loves the classical composers. “I just love the way they put the music together. I think about the music, what they were thinking about, why they composed this music.”
Her favorites are Debussy and Mozart. She looks at her hands. “My hands are very small.” She fans out her fingers. “So Mozart fits my hands.”
Her eyesight is failing. And that is her biggest fear.
“I dread the time if I never have any more sight to see the music because I don't want to stop playing,” she says. “I feel better when I play this beautiful music.”
Dee grew up in a poor, rural Wisconsin home. But her mother had inherited a piano. And to keep a mischievous Dee out of trouble, she started her with piano lessons.
“I loved the teacher; I loved the music,” Dee says. “Nobody had to make me practice and I never stopped.” She would attend the University of Wisconsin, Madison, on scholarship.
Later a staff accompanist at Metropolitan State University for 27 years, Dee began as an elementary and high school music teacher for nine one-room schools in rural Wisconsin that she had to get to in two days.
“I'd roar up in my car and teach, then roar up to the next one,” she says. “I would spin around on the roads, I would knock over the mailboxes — I was in such a hurry.”
Dee laughs. “I was young.”
Rita smiles, taking a sip of tea. “We were all young at one time.”
Dee still practices every day, one of the reasons, she believes, that she doesn't have any pain in her arthritic hands. Twelve years ago, macular degeneration clouded the sight in her left eye. In August, doctors found the beginning of the disease in her right eye.
“I'm surviving,” Dee says and tells Donita and Rita about the musical program she played recently with a friend. “I played practically note-perfect. I'm going to keep going until I can't see anything.”
The stories around the table this day compose a concerto of family remembered and talent ignited, of challenges faced and overcome, of the importance of sharing a singular passion with the world. They also, perhaps mostly, recount a friendship born, nurtured and sealed by the implicit understanding of a love and need for music and the deep happiness it brings.
The piano waits across the room. A brass light that cost $100 arches over the music books of Debussy and Chopin resting against the piano rack. Rita's $400 piano glasses lie on top.
Rita: “It was worth it to me, to see the music … so I can play.”
And play they will.
Of that, there is no doubt.
As long as they can, Donita says.
Till, Dee concludes, the end.
A benefit concert to raise money for “Mending Faces,” which sends doctors to the Philippines to operate on children with cleft palates, will be held Jan. 26 at 3 p.m. at St. Paul Lutheran Church, 1600 Grant St., Denver. The concert is presented by the Denver Alumnae Chapter and Sigma Upsilon Chapter, Sigma Alpha Iota International Music Fraternity. Tickets are $25, $10 for students. Contact Rita Jo Tensly at 303-748-6889 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ann Macari Healey's column about people, places and issues of everyday life appears every other week. She can be reached at email@example.com or 303-566-4110.