It’s never too late to live your dream—at least that’s what I learned from Rex Gardner, a man who lives to create music.
Growing up in the tiny Oklahoma town of Paoli (population 300), Rex only heard the kind of music best described as “country,” “hillbilly” and “foot-stomping.” Then at age 13, he watched “The Liberace Show” for the first time. “I knew I wanted to do that—to play the piano like that,” the 74-year-old retiree recalled.
The Gardner family was poor, but Rex’s mother saved up $50 to buy a piano. For three years, Rex religiously took lessons, and by high school graduation he could play Chopin. Next came college and marriage to his wife Edwina. The new couple purchased a Baldwin grand piano, and when they lived in Albuquerque, he spent two years training with Ralph Berkowitz, manager of the city’s symphony.
“We moved seven times, and we moved the piano every time,” Rex recalled. “But I had to make a living.”
Rex spent the majority of his career as a regional financial manager of 25 Veteran’s Administration Hospital facilities in nine states. “My career was very demanding, and I didn’t touch a piano for 35 years,” he said. “But I knew when I retired I would come back to it.”
Retirement came in 1998, and at age 60, Rex resumed piano lessons near his Nashville, Tennessee, home. He has been training ever since, and his commitment to music has been rewarded.
Beginning in 2000, Rex started attending Piano Texas International Academy and Festival in Fort Worth, Texas, an international academy founded for superior amateur pianists during the sixth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth, Texas. In 2007, Rex spent three months working full time with Yakov Kasman, a professor at the University of Birmingham and former Van Cliburn silver medalist. He then applied to be a competitor in the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs and was among the 75 competitors selected worldwide.
“I was accepted,” he said. “When they called me, I almost fainted. I had to sit down in my kitchen chair.”
Piano Texas is the big time for up-and-coming artists around the globe, and it was especially exciting for a retiree who had long deferred his dream. There, he took master classes daily and attended recitals nightly. Many of his fellow students were still in high school, but some were in their 50s and 60s. “There was a doctor from Seattle who is a little older than me,” Rex said. “I called him ‘The Old Man.’”
Rex has since participated in Piano Texas every year.
Today, Rex performs Chopin’s Impromptus #2 in F sharp major and Mozart’s Concerto #20 in D minor (the second movement), although he admitted, “I can’t memorize music in my old age. Your mind can’t retain what it did when you were younger. I’m working on that now.”
He also has plans for what he wants to learn through 2015, such as Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 12 in F major and Liszt's Un Sospiro. He studies with Kristian Klefstad, a doctor and professor of piano at Belmont University in Nashville, with whom he spends three to four hours a day practicing.
“I try to be exact and do it right,” he said of his work. “I want to play the piano, not just hit the key. It’s about timing and knowing how to color the music and express it.”
Rex is happy to have returned to what he describes as “my first love” and believes it is possible for anyone to recapture a youthful dream.
“You can do anything,” he said. “People have different talents. Hook into one of your talents in old age. If you don’t have a plan when you retire, you’ll be dead in two years. Don’t let yourself be bored.”
Pat Pape is a freelance writer, blogger and communications consultant, who lives with her husband and various animals north of Dallas.