When a Lincoln Land Community College student asked musician and teacher Jane Hartman to play the Leonard Cohen song, “Hallelujah,” she said, “I’ve never played ‘Hallelujah’ before, but let’s do it in a Mozart style.”
Her fingers flick over the keys, high tones flipping around and twisting back on themselves. Its pure, pristine quality flirts with our ears.
“Let’s try Beethoven.”
Her hands pound the low chords, the high chords responding. It’s a dramatic, harsh sound resounding against the walls and echoing through the room.
“If I were to do it in Debussy—“
The song sounds distorted, the wistful, dreamlike notes quickly moving up and down.
“How about a tango?”
Jane Hartman, leader of the Jane Hartman Trio and teacher at Lincoln Land Community College in Springfield, continues on and on, displaying her quick, instinctive knowledge of the piano.
The most common question asked of Hartman is: Why music? Hartman says, “Growing up, music was so much of my family’s atmosphere. It was like the wallpaper on the wall that you didn’t notice—you just heard stuff. My dad had a [country-western] band, and his buddies would come over on Sunday afternoons.”
One thing changed Hartman’s entire life. “I got a piano. My grandma was moving from the farmhouse to someplace in town, and they couldn’t take the upright piano. I was in kindergarten. She had probably 20 grandkids, and she gave that piano to me.”
Growing up in Divernon, Hartman had trouble finding a piano teacher. “There was a wait list for the teacher that my mother wanted to put me with. The wait list was a year. We were on our way out of church that day and my mom said to the new pastor, ‘I couldn’t get a teacher for Janie; she’s on a wait list.’ The pastor said, ‘Well, my wife will take her,’ and the rest is history.” At her first lesson, her mother said to the teacher, “Don’t mess with her ear, I think she’s got a good one.”
Hartman is still in contact with her piano teacher. “Her daughter married one of the fellas that runs the Abraham Lincoln Museum, so she comes to town frequently,” she says.
The oldest of nine children, Hartman sums up her chaotic childhood in one word: “pandelirium.” “There was no bathroom. There was an outhouse. We were so little, my mother was afraid we’d fall in, so she put a potty-chair on the porch, and that’s where we went. We were just toddlers, you know. But the next house we moved to had a bathroom, but only two bedrooms.” With only two bedrooms, her parents and a baby slept in one, and the six remaining children (three had already moved out) slept in the other.
In talking about her musical career, Hartman comments on stage fright. “I still get stage fright. Always. I just suck it up. There’s nothing to do with it. Sometimes it can make me too shaky to play well, but sometimes it’s helpful.”
Hartman says she’s never really had a complete bomb of a performance. “I’ve had times when I don’t think I’ve played very well. I used to practice all day, but now I don’t. I teach all the time.”
The hardest piece for Hartman to play is “Winter Wind” by Chopin. Upon being asked to play a snippet from it, she blushes. “Oh no, let’s see. Let’s do another Chopin: ‘Fantaisie-Impromptu.’”
Again, she hammers away at the piano, the notes gliding and retracting. The simplicity and confusion shock the classroom full of students into smiles and awe.
When she’s playing, Hartman tries not to think about anything. “If I think about things like supper or grocery lists or class, it encroaches in your mind. You have to just throw it all away. A lot of it is muscle memory. If you have to worry about the notes, then you’re probably not ready to play it out in public. Most of piano music is memorized. If I started on a new piece, I don’t know how long it would take. Usually memory just happens. I was thinking you would have to do hours and hours of daily practice. Maybe four hours a day minimum to be able to really learn new material like that.”
Hartman says becoming a piano expert is time consuming. “To become a musical expert on anything, you have to have thousands of hours of practice. Perfect practice makes perfect.”
Beethoven is a favorite of Hartman. “You could feel [his] emotional state as you listen to [him]. You know if he’s having a good day or a bad day.” She continues, “Here he is, he’s been dead a couple hundred years. He’s still talking to us through those black dots on the page. It’s kind of a miracle.”
Hartman thinks deeper about the origins and beauty of music. “Music was used to build up and edify humanity. It brings us into a calmer state in a way. It brings us into a ‘Be Still and Know that I Am God’ state.’”
Hartman switches gears and discusses her teaching at LLCC since 1984. “I had a rough spell for a couple years when students weren’t attending. At that time, there was no precedent set for students having to attend. If students were consistently missing class, it was very difficult to teach, because you couldn’t continue on with your process to systematically teach anything.”
She says students tend to veer toward the guitar now more than the piano. “A lot of students don’t want to take the time to learn it, which takes years. Maybe it’s just not as popular with younger kids.”
Jane Hartman takes a deep breath, reflecting on one last piece of herself to offer to the classroom of students. “Find the truth for yourself and follow it. Seek some sort of transcendence. Seek something higher and better than just what you can see and touch. That’s where the truth really does lie.”