I grew up in a musical family. My mother played the piano and her two brothers loved to sing. My father was a professional pianist. His hey-day years came in the vaudeville days during the silent film era. His sister and two brothers were amateur musicians. They played violin and piano.
I graduated from Millikin University in 1944 with a music degree and major in piano. The Second World War was still going on. My draft status was 4F. Since I could play piano and had done some composing, I thought I would fit in to the U.S.O. organization, but they wouldn’t take me. I decided to get work in a defense plant. I went to work at Sangamo Electric. I told my boss that I was only there until the war was over. Music was my field.
While working there, I joined the Springfield Community Chorus. The rehearsals were held at the Illinois Wesleyan Jr. College of Music, which was on the third floor of the building that houses Maldener’s restaurant. The director of the school was E. Carl Lundgren, who had been my high school teacher. He knew that I played the piano and had done some composing and had directed his high school chorus in rehearsals. One day after rehearsal, he asked me if I’d like to teach piano at his school. I was speechless. I had never thought of teaching piano before. So before he could change his mind, I told him I would like to try it. This was September of 1945. Mrs. Lundgren was also a piano teacher. I remember bombarding her with all sorts of questions before my first student’s lesson. I even remember my first student’s name. It was Eleanor Berry.
I spent many hours doing research at the local music store. The Music Shop, owned by Robert Sutton, was on Monroe Street between 4th and 5th Streets on the south side of the street near the alley. The music department was on the lower floor. Blanche Satiere was the manager of that department. She allowed me to take the music to an adjoining room in which a well-tuned piano was available. Her only stipulation was that I replace the music in alphabetical order.
I had no idea of the abundance of studies that were available for beginners and advanced students. I had a little black book with me at all times to record each book and to record what grade level it was.
After about two years, I left Wesleyan and opened my own studio. I taught two days a week in Taylorville and one day in Petersburg along with my Springfield lessons. By then I was beginning to feel more comfortable in my teaching.
I remember many unusual situations arising. A man from a nearby village called me and said they wanted a piano teacher to come to his school and that the students taking lessons would be excused from their classes to take lessons. Unheard of today! They would supply me with a room and a piano. I agreed and when I went for the first lesson, I found that I would be teaching in a storage room with sacks of potatoes. I called it my “potato studio.” I survived and a few months later, I was moved to a nice room in their junior high.
Another interesting situation was when I got a call from a lady who had been born with only one-half of her right arm. I did some research and found some exercises for left hand. We even worked on the “Concerto for Left Hand” by Ravel. I really enjoyed teaching that lady.
I worked with a student who had no fingers on his left hand, just a thumb. This is where my composing came in handy. I wrote some pieces for just a thumb in the left hand, with light right-hand accompaniment.
There was a TV program called “Cheyenne.” It had a catchy theme song, so I wrote a simplified version of it and handed out copies. The kids went wild.
I can also remember giving lessons in exchange for students to babysit.
In February of 1958, I got a phone call from a Dr. Charles Jordan. He was a local dentist. He told me that he had founded the Hope School for Blind and Multiple Handicapped Children and wanted to know if I would be interested in teaching piano there. I told him that I had no experience with blind children, let alone blind children that were mentally handicapped. I told him I would let him know in a couple of days. I called him later and told him that I would give it a try, but with one stipulation. I was not to be paid until I had proven to myself and to him that I could help these children.
I found that I could teach some of them to play simplified tunes, such as “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” “Happy Birthday,” “Silent Night,” and others using the rote system. And to my surprise, I found that two members of a vocal quartet that I had formed had perfect pitch. When they performed for a Christmas program, all I had to say was, “Kathy — or whoever — give us the pitch for ‘Silent Night.’” She would them hum a C and the other three would hum their individual notes to form a C-major chord. These kids sang “Silent Night” in four-part harmony without accompaniment. The audience was overwhelmed. After the program, I said to Dr. Jordan, “Charley, you can start paying me now.”
I also enjoyed conducting. I was the musical director for a performance of “Babes in Toyland,” by Victor Herbert. It was produced by Jo and Joey Mack Dance Studio. It was performed at the Springfield High School auditorium.
In the 1950s, I was asked by my friend and former pupil, Art Jacob (who owned Lloyds Cleaners), if I would consider performing on a 15-minute radio show once a week on WTAX. My co-host on the show was Bill Miller, a well-known station announcer. I would play a few pieces, then Bill and I would have a short discussion about the piece or whatever else came to our minds. It lasted one year and I met several wonderful people.
I also conducted the St. John’s Lutheran choir for three years. Those Lutherans certainly enjoy their music. We prepared two full anthems every Sunday. On Easter, we would prepare about 10 anthems to perform at the sunrise service. Since my buddies from the First Presbyterian Church choir didn’t perform an Easter sunrise service at their church, I drafted them over to sing with us at St. John’s. It was a wonderful experience.
I also had an opportunity to compose some interlude music for a ballet production, “Shadows of Glory,” put on by the Mildred Caskey Dance Studio. It was based on the music that was prevalent during Abraham Lincoln’s time. My first job was to write segue music between the dances. For instance, if a dance was slow and the next dance was fast, I had to connect these two dances without interruption. And most of the time, the next piece would be in a different key, so a smooth modulation was a must. The mood of the piece had to move into the mood of the next piece and I would have only a finite number of seconds to make this switch. The interludes had to be so smooth that the audience would not be aware of it. A stopwatch was a necessity. The segues were spliced into the main tape so at the performance, all I did was sit in the audience and enjoy.
At this particular time of my life, I remarried. The lady’s name was Shirley Trumper. Shirley was also a piano teacher specializing in group teaching. She was a pioneer in the group teaching method as well as doing some private teaching. We joined the Music Teacher’s National Association. Every year, we would go to the state convention. Shirley would attend lectures and I would attend the piano competition with my little black book in hand, absorbing all the advanced repertoire, piano solos and concerti that I could. I joined the Illinois Federation of Music Clubs in the 50s. This gave me an opportunity to increase my awareness of new publications and also to enter my advanced students in competition. In 1971, I joined the music faculty of Lincoln Land Community College. I have just retired from there after 39 years.
I have been very fortunate to attract students that were very talented and had the desire and the drive to advance to the competitive level. They have become aware of discipline and responsibility, which will be with them for the rest of their lives.
In recognition of his notable contributions to his chosen field, countless referrals of talented students to the School of Music, and continued loyalty to Millikin University, George Ecklund Sr. ’44 received Millikin’s Alumni Loyalty Award in 1966.
Mr. Ecklund wrote this personal history detailing his career in music in 2011. At the age of 92, he is still teaching piano to advanced students.
Imagine, if you can, a world with no Elmo. No Neighborhood of Make Believe. And no French Chef and “bon appetit!”
Without Paul K. Taff ’41, we could lack all that and more. Taff has spent more than 60 years in the broadcasting industry, dedicating himself to bringing educational programs into American homes. As director of children’s programming at NET (National Educational Television, a forerunner to PBS), he brought a local public television program to national acclaim -- “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” -- and followed it by bringing Julia Child’s first cooking program, “The French Chef,” to television screens nationwide. Taff was also one of the planners and served on the national board of advisors for the creation of “Sesame Street,” a program that debuted in 1969 and is still educating and entertaining children today with Elmo and his colorful, furry friends. Taff is also proud of his role in bringing college-level curriculum to public broadcasting nationwide, providing people of all ages with the opportunity to use their TV as a tool to help advance their education.
“Education is the most important thing,” he says. “I believe that’s what television should be used for.”
The complete article appeared in the winter Fall 2007 issue of Millikin Quarterly magazine.