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Musician fills grandma’s shoes

Pianist Susan Hardee is learning Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C Minor to play at Carnegie Hall in New York in May.

Pianist Susan Hardee is learning Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C Minor to play at Carnegie Hall in New York in May.

ALBANY — Behind the ebony Technics piano, sheet music stand and antique lamp at the 120-year-old Windsor Hotel in Americus, the sound of Ruth Hulse Nelson emanates through the fingers of her granddaughter, Susan Hardee, as she belts out Ira and George Gershwin’s “Our Love Is Here to Stay.”

Though her eyes rarely wander from the keyboard, it is evident that she is at ease as she strokes every note. With each song she performs, a slight smile overcomes her trance and in that moment, everyone can feel her love for music.

But what makes her job so unique is that she is literally following in the footsteps of her grandmother, who she refers to as “Oooh.”

“Oooh played at KMOX radio for 26 years and during that time, she was also playing at the Mayfair Hotel and Lenox Hotel located in St. Louis,” Hardee said. “At the Lenox Hotel, she played the piano and organ all at the same time; she was just so talented.”

Although Hardee confessed that she wasn’t as good on the organ as her grandmother, the parallel between their lives can not be denied.

At the tender age of 10, Hardee began playing the piano, learning all of Oooh’s techniques and sharing in her passion for music. During the past 40 years, Hardee has had a multifaceted life. From riding the autobahns through Germany to examining the cut of diamonds in the United States, her extensive travels has led her to embrace her true love: music.

Whether Hardee is playing the soft melody of Dionne Warwick’s “Walk On By” or an upbeat jazz number by Frank Sinatra, it is evident that Oooh’s influence resonates through her music. Hardee has an eclectic collection of sheet music, ranging from 1886 to the present.

“It is the most phenomenal thing; I feel like Oooh is watching over me. This is her music that I’m playing,” she said, “and this makes me feel at home.”

However, the journey didn’t begin with such enthusiasm. Hardee had to endure pain on the way to rediscovery.

“When my father died in March 2005, I started pulling music from everywhere. At the time, I was playing at catered events and churches and then I decided that I needed to get back in that mainstream,” Hardee said.

In order to move forward with her life, she stripped her grandmother’s piano pin block, bought an African Pommele piano from Jim’s Piano and Organ in Albany and restored it.

Today, Hardee can be found rocking to the tunes of “A House Is Not A Home,” “What The World Needs Now,” and “That’s Amore” — to name a few — in the grand dining room of Amelia’s Restaurant in the Windsor Hotel.

Owner Sharad Patel said that the patrons have been responsive to her musical style. She has already received a compliment most musicians strive for throughout their careers: to touch someone’s spirit through their music.

“It was a Saturday night and a gentleman asked me to keep playing and I did. The next thing I knew he got his wife up to dance and when they were done, they sat down and held each other tightly,” Hardee said. “Afterwards, their daughter came up to me and said ‘you are to be thanked; my mom and dad have not danced in 10 years and you got them to dance.’ ”

Hardee’s music has even landed her the opportunity of a lifetime. She has been extended an offer to play at Carnegie Hall in New York City in May. She jokingly pointed to her forehead as she said she would be playing Beethoven’s 5th Symphony from memory, which consists of 43 pages.

“With my Master’s, I received it online in piano artistry. So, I emailed my thesis to Carnegie Hall, they sent the music to me and said, ‘you’re coming!’ ” she said.

As part of the doctorate program at Steinway University, she will need to play in order to graduate and, if she is able to get it done, she will be the seventh to earn her doctorate from the university.

Hardee’s life has been anything but normal and as she begins to lay down new tracks in her career, she has this moment now to enjoy revisiting Oooh’s music and creating her own along the way.