Last month, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) walked onto a stage high in his home state’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Senator took a seat at a piano, with the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra behind him.
As a crowd of thousands looked on, Alexander, dressed in a white-jacketed tuxedo, began playing “Amazing Grace.” He says as his fingers glided across the ivory keys, he was reminded of the early settlers who traveled to Tennessee.
“It’s a song that is really emblematic of the heritage of the park,” he says. “You’re sitting out there in the park on a Sunday afternoon with the mountains all around you and thinking about the heritage of the people who came here. This song brought those feelings out as much as anything.”
“My favorite composer was Mozart, “ he says. “I think because he wrote so many of his pieces at that age.”
Alexander’s father was a singer, and over time he began accompanying him on the piano at revival performances in Tennessee. As time passed and his schedule grew busier, Alexander still found time to play. He would often wake before the sun rose in order to complete his newspaper route and practice playing before school so that his afternoons would be free for football practice.
“It’s been a great source of joy for me,” he says.
At 16 he stopped taking lessons, blaming the usual suspects: “sports, parties, studying and girls.” Even so, Alexander still played on his own. In the 1980s, when he was governor of the Volunteer State, he traveled around the state playing with various orchestras in an effort to draw attention to their fundraising efforts. In Memphis, he played before a crowd of 250,000.
“I played Jerry Lee Lewis [songs] and I wore a white jacket and kicked the piano,” he says with a smile.
This love of music has spurred Alexander to become a proponent of arts education for students. Twenty-five years ago, he created the Tennessee Governor’s School for the Arts at Middle Tennessee State University, and he recently proposed distributing $500 vouchers to children from low- to middle-income families. Theses vouchers could be spent at any accredited after-school program and would be similar to Pell Grants.
“A lot of schools are squeezing music and art out,” he says. “I think if we had rich music and art and drama [programs] in the afternoon, lots of kids would do it.”
Not only would the vouchers help kids find a creative outlet, but they would also help them learn life lessons through art, he says. Perhaps the greatest lesson these students would learn is that practice is essential to success. It will also teach them to stay in control and to find “cadence and order in what you do,” he says.
In addition to learning lessons from the piano, Alexander has also looked to it as a source of fun. When he thought his political career was winding down in the 1990s, he took a trip to New York to buy a piano from the Steinway store. On his arrival, Alexander was greeted by a man in a tuxedo who took him to a back room.
“They’d take you to the back and they’d start bringing out pianos, and you’d play them and you’d finally pick the one you wanted, and they’d ship it to you,” he explains.
Alexander played five different pianos before finally settling on a nine-foot Steinway. That piano is now in his home in Nashville. He also has a seven-foot piano in Washington and another Steinway in his home outside Maryville.
While he hasn’t taken lessons in more than 50 years, Alexander says he is still about 70 percent to 80 percent as good a player as he was as a kid. While his public performances are sporadic, he still makes time to play at home once or twice a week.
“I play for my own enjoyment,” he says.
Alexander chose to make this rare public performance in honor of the 75th anniversary of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Smokies, a Tennessee state treasure, have always been important to Alexander. In fact, he also played piano at the park’s 50th anniversary in 1984.
“I played some classics, then some country and then some gospel,” he says of that performance.
While Alexander is known nationally as a Senator, a former secretary of Education and a former governor of Tennessee, he is also known around his home state as a classically trained pianist. Alexander, who began playing at age 4, says the lessons that he learned from the piano, such as the old saying “practice makes perfect,” helped him as he grew into a politician.
“Good football players, good singers and good politicians practice a lot,” he says.
Alexander first began playing the piano at his mother’s insistence. She signed him up for music lessons at Maryville College in Tennessee, a short distance from his home.
“I don’t remember that I had any choice,” the Senator says with a chuckle. Alexander took to the piano quickly, and it wasn’t long before he was playing pieces by Bach and other well-known composers.