Many of us make snap judgements about strangers we meet. I’ve been guilty of that myself, but writing these newspaper profiles has reminded me how shallow and unfair it is to label people prematurely. I’ve heard folks make sweeping generalizations like, “He’s just a dumb farmer.” That one really irks me because I spent the first 17 years of my life on a Minnesota farm.
Sylvia Nygaard, who has worked as a waitress at the Fergus Falls Perkins since 1979, is a case in point. She had served me breakfast several times, before someone told me that she was an accomplished pianist. I thought what an excellent person to make this point: We all possess treasured talents and accomplishments, often overlooked. I was pleased when Sylvia agreed to be interviewed.
After graduating from Pelican Rapids High School in 1976, Sylvia spent a year at Moorhead State College, before transferring to Fergus Falls Community College. She met her late husband, Brian Nygaard, while working at Perkins, and they were married in 1988. Sylvia stayed at Perkins, but her husband ventured on to radio, where he eventually became the KBRF news director for nine years, before passing away in 2011.
Our discussion turned to music. I asked Sylvia why she took up playing the piano. She recalled, “I guess I became interested in music in my early childhood days. I have two older brothers, who were musically talented and were taking piano lessons. I wanted to be like them. I started lessons in the third grade and eventually ended up taking lessons in Fergus Falls from Dorothy Andstrom. My downfall is that I cannot play by ear — I need to have music in front of me. And I’m really bad at memorizing.”
She told me more about her brothers’ musical careers. “The oldest attended Juilliard School of Music in New York with an emphasis in opera. My other brother has a doctorate in music in choral work, and has taught and directed at Shoreline Community College near Seattle, Washington. He also directed the Bellevue Chamber Chorus for 18 years. Both have since retired.”
We talked about her present role as a pianist. She began, “I accompany a local men’s quartet called aChord. The group has been singing in the area for 20 years. Some members have moved or retired, so we have had changes. They are Dennis Johnson and Nathan Johnson from Fergus Falls, Don Glesne from Underwood, and Steve Langager of Star Lake area. Dennis and I are the two left of the original members. We have put together four CDs, starting with the first group up to the current.” During my last breakfast at Perkins, I met Harlan Lysne, a former member of aChord. I asked him about Sylvia. He said, “She is a wonderful musician and a great teacher.”
Sylvia also accompanies another choral group, based out of the college, called the Chamber Chorale. She explained, “When I started at the college, I sang in the choir and Madrigal group, and was asked to play for the groups. There was an adult group that needed an accompanist, and I was asked to play for them as well. And I’m still there! We meet every Monday night for three hours when college is in session and give two concerts a year, usually one in December and one in May.”
Finally, I asked Sylvia what music has meant to her life. She summed it up with an old saying set in verse. “Music speaks what cannot be expressed. It soothes the mind and gives it rest. It heals the heart and makes it whole. It flows from Heaven to the soul.” She added, “I didn’t want to make music my life’s work. In simple terms, I just really like to play piano for the enjoyment it gives me and others.”
Yes, Sylvia is more than a waitress who serves me breakfast; she is a gifted musician. Be careful about pigeonholing people based on their age or occupation, their skin color, the way they speak, or the way they dress. TV ads will lead you to judge a man by the expensive car he drives or a woman by her lavish living room furnishings. What nonsense! We learn about people when we pause and listen to their life stories. We discover their talents, their values, and we learn about their contributions to our society.
Ozzie Tollefson lives near Phelps Mill and is the author of “Mr. Teacher.”