At 86, Fauneil Keller still knows her way around the keyboard
(Story and photos used with permission of Timber Lake Topic)
By Karen Holzer
Fingers dance up and down the keys, melodies float through the air, music fills the room while the musician softly smiles as she plays song after song.
If words could paint a picture, the canvas would surely portray Fauneil Keller sitting at a keyboard sharing her love of music for everyone to hear. Fauneil, a spry 86-year-old, has been playing music since she was a young girl, serving as accompanist for churches and schools. For over seventy years, she has shared her talents and love of music with church congregations, providing music for funerals and weddings, and accompanying school groups.
Fauneil’s first memories of playing piano were when she was three years old. She sat on the bench of her aunt’s playerpiano, pretending her fingers were actually playing the songs as the paper rolls turned in the piano.
As a young girl, finishing third grade when her family was living in Mobridge, her cousin gave her piano lessons. As a fifth grader, when her family lived in Timber Lake, she started piano lessons. She remembers three girls, Caroline Traversie, Sally Ross and herself, took lessons together. Fauneil says, “Our teacher was Mrs. Nelson. We sat on the piano bench together, and played together, moving up the keyboard. At that time I didn’t have a piano at home, so I just practiced using the table at home for a keyboard.” When she was in seventh grade, Sister Alice Marie at the Catholic School, gave her piano lessons.
She remembers how happy she was when her parents, Buck and Eleanor Simpson, bought a piano for $200, for their home. Fauneil says, “I was happy to be able to play and practice at home with a real piano.”
It was in grade school, about fifth grade, that she began playing the clarinet under the direction of Barney Wolf, the music teacher at Timber Lake High School. She continued playing the clarinet during high school.
Fauneil smiles as she remembers playing with the high school band. Mr. Wolf was the teacher during those years also. Fauneil says, “He was a good music teacher. He was from Germany. I remember he worked for the City during the summer months.”
“Mr. Wolf took us many places to play as a band, including one time we went to Minneapolis.”
The band members rode the train and stayed in a motel. Fauneil says, “I remember that parade was seven hours long. We had wool uniforms with hats. It was in the middle of the summer and it was hot.” The band also traveled to Aberdeen to perform at Gypsy Days at Northern State College.
The band practiced every week during the summer, and one night a week they performed an outdoor concert on Main Street. Mr. Wolf took them to area towns to play at rodeos in Faith, Dupree, Eagle Butte and Mobridge.
Fauneil commented, “Mrs. Keefer, who had a clothing store on Main Street, ordered western shirts and jeans for us to wear.” There were about 30 musicians in the high school band that traveled on the school bus with Johnny Caswell as their driver.
They played marching music – happy, outside music including arrangements by John Philip Sousa, one of Fauneil’s favorites. A lyre was attached to the instruments to hold music as the young musicians marched or played outdoors.
They went to area towns to promote Timber Lake and the Days of 1910 rodeo. She said, “We had a lot of fun on those trips. At that time, we didn’t have phones so we talked to each other and enjoyed the time with each other.”
Through high school she was part of the choir and band. She played her instrument in concerts and contests, practicing for hours and hours. Fauneil says, “ I never minded practicing. I always enjoyed music.”
Looking back, Fauneil comments that after she graduated in 1954 she went to school in Sioux Falls for business because she wanted to learn to be a stenographer. When she returned to Timber Lake, she worked at Moreau- Grand Electric for 85 cents an hour.
She laughs, saying, “I should have gone to school to teach music, but maybe using a stenographer machine was similar to a keyboard.”
When she married Peter Keller in 1956, she married into a very musical family. The Keller family had an orchestra. The siblings played a variety of instruments by ear, as they didn’t read music. Usually when their band traveled, they had two saxophone players, a drummer (Pete) and a keyboard. During their early years of marriage, Pete would frequently travel with the band while Fauneil stayed home to care for their young children.
When she was about 11 years old, she remembers she played in the Methodist Church in Timber Lake. Later, when her parents belonged to the Episcopal Church, she played for that congregation. Over the years she has played in a lot of different churches, providing music for services, funerals, weddings and other occasions. She played in Our Savior’s Lutheran Church north of Firesteel, the UCC, the Catholic churches, Trinity Lutheran, United Parish and more in the towns of Isabel, Timber Lake, Trail City, Mobridge, Piedmont, Dupree, Faith, Aberdeen and Jamestown, ND.
Fauneil remembers that in the Methodist Church, the organ was moved to the back area of the church during times when events were held in the basement, so the music would travel through the air vents into the basement. As a young girl, she remembers J.D. Kesling at the Methodist Church as a Sunday school teacher who was good at organizing lots of music things.
Reflecting on her 70 years of playing in church, she smiles as she thinks back to all the sermons and homilies she has listened to, along with all the ministers, priests, choir directors and lay people that she has worked with.
She comments, “I played at a lot of services. I enjoyed it. To me, the services were all joyful. God was what the churches were about.” She says, “It is an honor to play in church – you feel good doing it. It is good to contribute to a church service wherever you are. My playing made people happy. I always enjoy the music and melodies while I am playing.”
Playing for the Catholic churches in Timber Lake, Trail City and Mobridge has been a regular activity for Fauneil since the late 1950s. She recalls that before 1962 and the Vatican II changes, the people did not sing along with the music. When she played, it was only the music of the organ and the priest and choir singing in Latin. After Vatican II, the people joined in singing in English. She comments, “That was a big change in music in the Catholic Church. It was also a change for me to play with the congregation ”
In 1978, when her youngest daughter, Angie, was 5 years old, Fauneil went to work at the Timber Lake School filling in for June Schaffner in the library. She later began working in the music department with Director Mavis Remmers,
Fauneil says, “I taught music lessons on a variety of instruments. I would study instructions about playing instruments from books and would figure it out. I learned to slur and tongue on the instruments.” She was able to teach herself and then teach her students.
She says, “The only instrument I never mastered playing myself was the flute. I could teach it by following instructions and working with students, but I never could play it well.”
Her years of working in the music department at the school were interesting. She was involved in choir and band. The music department would perform at concerts throughout the year. During the school year, the band would play pep band music for all the home athletic games. In the spring the entire group, individuals, and small groups would compete at contests held in Mobridge. Grade school students competed at contest also, first in Selby and later in McIntosh. Linus Keller was frequently the bus driver for out of town music events.
Fauneil often changed sharps and flats in the arrangements or accompanist pieces she played. She says, “It is a lot easier to play the music composed with three flats than to play five sharps and it is playing the same notes.”
Over the years, she spent a lot of time with student musicians and developed many relationships with the students through their interactions. She is pleased so many of those student connections have continued through the years after the students graduated.
Fauneil’s children, Bert, Suellen, Lawrence, Marcie and Angela, played musical instruments and participated in band and choir throughout their school years. It was a busy time in their house as everyone practiced their instruments. She remembers they were expected to practice, and practice they did.
Years later, her daughters were once home visiting and playing the piano together. When they finished, they thanked their mother for teaching them and making them practice during their childhood. Fauneil smiles as she thinks back to that time, remembering all the hours they spent practicing in their home. “I never minded practicing when I was young,” she said. “I practiced and played music for hours growing up. I still enjoy playing music and spend a lot of time doing that.”
According to Fauneil, many things in music have changed over the years. “We now have electronic keyboards that will provide fifty different sounds just by the push of a button,” she says. The keyboards can play the sounds of any musical instrument.
When asked to name some of her favorite musical selections and hymns, Fauneil hesitates, then says “I like anything. I enjoy all the different music. I especially enjoy music by Beethoven and other classical arrangements by Mozart and Chopin. I like any hymn. And Christmas music is special.”
She remembers her dad loved the song “Mocking Bird Hill” and always liked to hear her play it. Another childhood song that comes to mind is “The Indian Maid,” as she remembers the connection with a Fort Yates photographer and his wife that would visit. As Fauneil sits across the table, recalling specific tunes from her past and present, her fingers move up and down the invisible keyboard in front of her as she hums to fill in missing measures and lyrics. Indeed, after years and years of experience and exposure to music, the melodies and arrangements have become a part of her being. She remembers songs, lyrics and melodies by “playing them” without an instrument or music.
Sharing her lifetime love of music is a gift Fauneil has given freely throughout the years. She continues to share music as she plays the keyboard at Saturday evening services at Holy Cross Church, or on the piano bench of many community and church occasions. With her fingers poised above the keys ready to dance through arrangements, she continues to fill the room with music for others to enjoy.