By Amy Di Leo, MS
“The afternoon before the surgery, my English teacher, Mr. Gordon Stills; my music teacher, Ms. Dorothy Marshall; my school counselor; and a group of schoolmates visited me in the children’s ward at Johns Hopkins Hospital. They gathered around the upright piano in the recreation room as I played, sang songs, and performed some classical pieces. It was as if we were gathering for a funeral. But I knew it was going to be a short service because there was no death going on in my spirit. The only death that was happening was the death of my limb.” —Jerry Cleveland
By 15 years old, Jerry Cleveland knew that he wanted to be a pianist.
“I started playing in sixth grade to compete with my younger sister, who started taking lessons before me. But I think my grandmother realized my gift and that I was serious about the piano when I was in junior high [and] began to work an after-school job to save up money to buy one,” says Cleveland. “When they moved that old upright into the house and placed it in the hall where the phone chair used to be, that sealed the deal. That night I was up and down the stairs all night long playing my new piano, then sleeping a little, then playing a little more.”
Cleveland was so committed to his newly found talent that he put everything he had into it, including spending the earnings from his part-time job on piano lessons that cost $1 per session.
“Mr. Leonard Johnson was my first piano teacher and the biggest musical influence in my life,” says Cleveland. “Mr. Johnson’s music studio was around the corner from my house, but I didn’t notice it until I started playing. I was able to afford several lessons a week, and I accelerated musically at an alarming rate.”
All the practice started to show in middle school when he was taken under the wing of a music teacher with a keen ear and a desire to help Cleveland succeed.
“My middle school music teacher, Ms. Marshall, was on hall duty one day, and she heard me practicing the piano in her music room. What really grabbed her attention was that I was playing a Beethoven piece with both hands. The average student at that age plucked out the melody with one finger, but I was playing it all. I also started sight-reading and ear training. I eagerly studied everything Ms. Marshall introduced. And at the end of the school year, she recommended me for a scholarship at the [Johns Hopkins University] Peabody Conservatory’s summer youth project.”
Each summer, the Baltimore City Public Schools sponsors a six-week training program in the art and practice of music for promising inner-city junior and senior high-school students. Cleveland was awarded the scholarship.
Cleveland says that it was around this time that the pain he had been enduring in his right hand for years became too much to bear.
As Cleveland describes it, “the pain was so debilitating that if the affected area was touched, the pain could last for days.”
Surgery on his hand provided some relief, but along with relief came the news that a biopsy revealed cancer. His doctors told him that amputating his right arm below the elbow would save his life.
While Cleveland’s world could have come crashing down, it didn’t. He only wanted to know if he could still attend the music program and play piano, and the answer was yes.
Cleveland was immediately fitted with a prosthetic hand and his piano playing didn’t skip a beat.
“When I was fitted with my first prosthetic device over 50 years ago, it was a myoelectric hand in the form of a cosmetic glove containing a tiny electric motor making the fingers move. I wore the motor and battery on a belt. The electronic device seemed very cumbersome and heavy to me, but I was told that within a few years all of that would fit into the hollow end of the prosthesis. At the time, it seemed impossible to me. Because I started with the manual prosthesis, I thought it was easier to operate. By today’s standard, the electronic prosthesis is much easier to get used to and maneuver.”
Cleveland joined the summer music program, and for the next few summers, he attended as the personal student of Tinka Knopf, DMA, conservatory director of undergraduate students and coordinator of the summer project. Cleveland attended master classes with Knopf and other famous artists, including Julio Estabon and Leon Fleisher. Rubbing shoulders with these masters, Cleveland says, enhanced his love for the piano.
“For me, music is a form of self-expression,” says Cleveland. “It’s akin to prayer. I pray to a God that I cannot see, touch, taste, or smell. I can’t communicate with him using sensory modality, yet I understand and believe that he hears me and answers my requests. Music brings that same sense of satisfaction, comfortability, and finality for me. We practice our instrument to better our communication with our inner and external audience.”
After high school, Cleveland continued his studies in music and graduated from Shenandoah University and Shenandoah Conservatory of Music in Winchester, Virginia—becoming the first college graduate in his family.
He ultimately decided on a career teaching music at the same school system in Baltimore from which he graduated. Today, the 65-year-old enjoys a tenured career teaching students from the inner city about music. And surely along the way, his students are also picking up Cleveland’s motto: “All things are possible to those who believe.”
Image courtesy of Jerry Cleveland.