When she started playing the piano at age 3, Helga Hulse’s tiny hands provided a challenge. Ninety years later, sometimes they still do.
The piano teacher and former longtime Chautauqua County resident, however, has never allowed her small stature to prevent her from playing the piano almost every day. Her mother, a concert pianist, composed pieces for Hulse to play as a child, taught her to read music and had extensions made for the piano so Hulse’s feet could reach the pedals.
Hulse, 93 — “I celebrate the end of 93 and the beginning of 94 in September,” she said — will deliver two lectures at Chautauqua Institution this week about her experiences as a piano teacher both in the private sector and at the Chautauqua County Jail in Mayville.
She will give a lecture titled “Piano: 74 Years in the Private Teaching Sector” at 4 p.m. today in Elizabeth S. Lenna Hall, which is open to the public, and a lecture titled “The Power of Music for the Incarcerated” to the Road Scholar class for its music week program.
Although many children resent the instruments forced upon them by their parents, Hulse and the piano experienced an instant love affair. Her mother had a Mason & Hamlin concert grand and an upright piano in the house, on which Hulse learned fundamentals such as how to use her fingers, sit at the piano and hold her hands.
“We had classical music in the house all the time. I was in that milieu. I heard classical music every day of my life there,” she said. “I loved it from the beginning and I never ceased it.”
Hulse, born in Honolulu, performed with numerous symphony orchestras and studied at musical colleges and conservatories throughout her childhood and teen years. At 19, a college freshman, Hulse began teaching piano lessons; after moving and traveling often, Hulse landed in Jamestown, New York, in the 1970s, and started a music studio.
One of her piano students was an FBI special agent, who helped transform an idea Hulse had had for 40 years into a reality — creating a music program in a local jail. Hulse and her student wrote up a proposal for Chautauqua County Sheriff Joseph Gerace in 2007, who shared Hulse’s enthusiasm for the program.
“He was very favorably impressed,” Hulse said. “Gerace has a lot of vision. He has a lot of caring for the prisoners.”
Beginning in 2008, Hulse taught male and female prisoners, and eventually juveniles, to read music and music theory, and they learned to play pieces by Bach, Beethoven and Mozart.
“They loved Mozart,” she said.
And although Hulse was often instructing murderers, it never gave her pause. The prisoners were kind and polite to her, and the music had a positive influence on their lives.
“It had a very powerful healing effect on people who were disoriented and hopeless, you might say,” she said. “The entire approach to classical music shows in their responses. It brought out the best in everybody.”
Hulse, who attended music and dance performances at Chautauqua Institution for the decades she lived in Jamestown, moved to South Carolina in 2011. She hopes to start a similar music program at a jail in her new state, although she doesn’t have a local connection there.
Although Hulse can’t choose a piece of music that influenced her most in her life — “every one of them is like a separate star in the sky,” she said — the whole of the musical galaxy has impacted her more than anything else, a power she hopes to continue to share.
“I hope that anything I can convey on the subject of music brings joy to people’s lives and that each life becomes a piece of art, and that art, we can communicate on a higher level of thinking and work toward good communication amongst all the peoples of the world,” she said. “Because music will help immensely in that endeavor.”