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Music is her key to life

Nancy Callahan, a piano teacher and choir director, says ''music can speak to people in a way words cannot.''

By SUSAN THURSTON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 5, 2002

HYDE PARK -- The piano was supposed to be for Nancy Callahan's older brother.

That changed when the 5-year-old sat down at the keys and her fingers took over. Right away, her family knew she had a gift.

More than 40 years later, Callahan still plays with the enthusiasm of a child. Combine that with decades of experience and you get a musician with heart and skill.

As longtime music director at Hyde Park United Methodist Church and a private piano teacher, Callahan spends hours every week passing along her love of music to people ages 8 to 80.

Her big, white house on Morrison Avenue has three pianos and one harpsichord, including the Steinway she's been playing since age 16.

"We do music around here most every day," she says.

Among her favorites: J.S. Bach, Frederic Chopin and Ludwig van Beethoven. She abhors country music and tolerates rock, a necessity when living with three sons, ages 11 to 17.

Callahan, 49, started teaching piano at a young age while growing up in Charleston, S.C. She was in middle school and taught classmates out of her mother's living room.

She majored in piano at Charleston Southern University. (She also took violin but says she wasn't that good.) She went on to the University of South Carolina, where she earned a master's degree in organ performance.

She moved to Tampa with her first husband 22 years ago and landed the job at Hyde Park a year later. As full-time music director, Callahan leads the adult, children's and hand bell choirs, and she plays the organ during the traditional Sunday services. Partner Belinda Womack handles the contemporary services.

Like a pew or purple robe, Callahan is a fixture in the church.

Members credit her with raising the quality of music and challenging the choir to complicated material.

"She's a real slave driver," says longtime choir member Fred Jones. "She has tremendous energy. Every choir rehearsal she wants to go an extra hour."

Few complain.

"She's so much fun. A two-hour practice is nothing with her. She keeps your interest," says Julie Whitney, a visiting singer from Bayshore Baptist Church.

Callahan gets an aerobic workout during every practice. She stands up, sits down, pounds on keys during the loud parts and taps lightly during the softer parts. Her signature position: standing with one foot on a pedal, one hand playing and the other conducting -- a difficult feat for her petite, 5-foot-nothing frame.

"Come on, make this gorgeous," she calls to the chorus during a recent rehearsal.

Callahan is a stickler for making the music reflect the mood. It's not enough to mouth the words, the chorus must feel them.

"I want to ascend to heaven," she coaxes them. "Take me for a ride, but don't force me."

Callahan has spent most of her life singing and playing religious hymns. She joined a church choir in second grade and always aspired to work in a place of worship. She enjoys being part of a church family and considers music a form of ministering.

"I think music can speak to people in a way words cannot," she says. "I can make something come alive in music."

For the last eight years, Callahan has led the church choir in a community performance of the Messiah. The first show drew about 500 people. Last year's, which included singers from Bayshore Baptist, Hyde Park Presbyterian and other local churches, had 2,300 at two performances.

These days, the choir gears up for a production of Johannes Brahm's Deutsch Requiem in English. The free show is set for 4 p.m. April 28 at Bayshore Baptist, 3111 W Morrison Ave. Callahan hopes for some divine inspiration.

When she isn't directing a chorus, she's teaching piano to students. She's had a waiting list for years and little turnover. Students like her style and personality.

"She's funny, and if I mess up, she doesn't make you feel bad about it," says 12-year-old Mary Ashley Dickinson, who wants to be a lawyer or an interior designer. And play the piano, of course.

On most weekday afternoons, Callahan's home becomes a revolving door for fledgling pianists. They practice scales, perform songs and learn the who's who of classical music. As a reward, they get jelly beans, lollipops and full run of her kitchen.

Austin Chase, her top student from Plant High School, stays for dinner.

Callahan says she loves working with students of all levels. No one practices enough, but she understands. She hopes her influence will inspire them to play for years to come.

"Music is for your soul," she says. "It's just something for you.

- Susan Thurston can be reached at 226-3394 or


  • AGE: 49
  • FAMILY: Married to singer John L. Hyer. Three sons, Christopher, Miles and Robert Callahan.
  • NONMUSICAL FRIENDS: Dogs Dolly and Mango and cat Ninja.
  • BEST DECORATING TIP: Buy one must-have piece of furniture a year.
  • HOBBY: Gardening.
  • FAVORITE FOOD: Everything her husband cooks.
  • PRIZED POSSESSION: Steinway piano she got at age 16.
  • CHERISHED COMPOSER: Herbert von Karajan.

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