by Ron Petrou
How often young people, especially women, put aside their paint brush, their guitar, their piano playing when they enter adolescence! Then after marriage, bringing up children, and having a career in the working world, they let their artistic talents lie fallow, believing it is too late to start anew.
But Charleen Stevens insists, “You can do it. The world needs more devotion to beauty. Through art we can participate in creation, find ourselves in harmony with nature and better relate to one another.”
Charleen, 68, for 29 years a resident of Chestnut Hill, discovered these truths through her own experience. Growing up in Whitestone, Queens, New York, she learned to play the piano with the sympathetic urging of her parents, both of whom enthusiastically played the piano for enjoyment. At first, not consistent in practicing the piano, she was guided and nudged by her mother. Charleen said, “When I was eight, I very, very much wanted a kitten. My mother said that if I played the piano every day for a year I could get one. And I did it. She had to get me a kitten. By then I was into playing the piano.”
A good student in elementary school and playing the violin as well as the piano, she auditioned for and was accepted into one of New York City’s prestigious specialized public schools, the High School of Music and Art, (now the LaGuardia High School of the Arts). As a sophomore she won a place in the All-New York Youth Orchestra playing the violin and performing at times in Carnegie Hall. She often attended Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts. She said, “Leonard Bernstein had a very caring attitude about wanting to bring classical music to the youth.”
At Hunter College in New York City she majored in music, took lessons at Juilliard and for a few years after graduation taught music in New York public schools. But she wanted to see the world, so she exchanged teaching for the glamorous role of a stewardess for Capital Airways. This was during the Vietnam War, and she often flew charter flights with American servicemen and women to airbases in Hawaii and Japan.
After working in the business world, however, Charleen returned to the more traditional role of wife and mother (of two girls) but eventually returned to art and then music, teaching piano to adults and children in the Chestnut Hill area.
While at Hunter College, she excelled in musical composition. She had often thought that her experience as a stewardess could provide material for a lively, romantic musical. She has been composing both the music and words for such a musical and has completed several songs about stewardesses and servicemen who meet and fall in love on their way to Hawaii and the Far East during the Vietnam War.
Recently she sang some of these songs, accompanying herself on the piano, to a group of friends in her living room. I was one of them. We were all delighted and impressed by the melodies and lyrics of her songs, some of which are “Swept Away,” “I Sure Am Missing You” and “Is Summer Over?”
Not to neglect the piano, last summer Charleen placed two videos on YouTube of herself playing “Rustle of Spring” by Christian Sinding and “La Plus Que Lente” by Debussy. Readers can view these performances by typing “Charleen Stevens” into Google or YouTube.
Furthermore, she has three CDs of piano music available at Amazon and cdbaby. They include, “My Favorite Chopin;” “The German Romantics” with music by Schumann, Mendelssohn, Schubert and Brahms; and “Happy Birthday Variations,” classical happy birthday variations composed by Charleen in the style of Mozart, Beethoven, Bizet, Chopin, Wagner, Brahms, Joplin and more..
But Charleen’s artistic activity has extended further into painting, painted silk scarves, currently oil painting, and gardening. She thinks that everyone can cultivate their artistic and creative abilities because there are so many possibilities for artistic expression. A three-time winner in Philadelphia’s City Garden’s Contest, she said about her garden, “It’s another way to create beauty. I love to go out into the garden, clean up and dig around. Mainly I have a flower garden. I also grow tomatoes and basil. My apricot tree gives, at the first sign of spring, absolutely heavenly white pink blossoms. And I have a little pond with a family of fish and frogs. Having a garden improves one’s quality of life. To me I receive joy being with nature either in my garden or down at the Wissahickon or at Pastorius Park looking at the beautiful trees reflected in the pond. I often get a chill from wonderful music or from poetry or from nature. Who needs drugs?”
Charleen’s reverence for classical music and the poetry of poets like Wordsworth — one of her favorite poems is his “Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Reflections of Early Childhood” — awakens in her a question about the relationship between the effect of beauty on our emotions and our bodies. She said, “I think we need to further explore the whole realm of emotions that arise from the richness of the chord progressions in classical music.”
She also studied Chinese brush painting for five years during the ’80s with Pheebe Shih. She said, “After that I took a silk scarf workshop and used a lot of my paintings as prototypes. In the early ’90s it was popular to have hand-painted scarves, so I had a little business doing that for seven years.” Currently she is painting in oils.
Stevens is grateful for all the gifts she received from her parents and grandparents who “gave me recordings of orchestral music such as the Tchaikovsky’s ‘Nutcracker’ when I was five years old. As a child I used to listen to Brahms’ ‘Hungarian Dances’ and dance around the living room. My mother would take me to plays and concerts in Manhattan. When she was pregnant with me, she was practicing the piano every day. I believe there is a window of opportunity for children to absorb what beauty is musically, artistically and in nature. If they miss that window, they might not appreciate and value the musical, literary, architectural and artistic accomplishments of our civilization.”
About the environment of Chestnut Hill, Charleen said, “This neighborhood is very like the neighborhood where I grew up in Whitestone because it’s got older, historical buildings and many, carefully tended, beautiful gardens. It’s like a village where I can easily go shopping, and it is at the edge of the city. So when I came to Chestnut Hill, it was a good fit. It felt like home.”
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