95-YEAR-OLD PIANIST BRIGHTENS ASSISTED LIVING HOME WITH HER UNIQUE SOUND
By Alice Perry Linker
Observer Staff Writer
Her memory's not as sharp as it once was, but her step is sprightly, she laughs easily, and when she sits down at the piano, the years slip away.
From memory, she offers Beethoven's "Fur Elise," playing it in her own style, ripping off arpeggios and ending with a flourish, raising her hands above her head and laughing merrily.
Her favorites, however, are the tunes she played when she was a club pianist in Olympia, Wash., before and during World War II, such songs as "Stardust," and jazz favorites that younger people cannot identify.
The 95-year-old Kitty Brettelle doesn't play on stage anymore, she sends her unique sound through the rooms at Wildflower Lodge assisted living home, where staff and residents alike find pleasure in her music.
"She's amazing," said Melissa Spaete, Wildflower manager. "One day, I was playing Â‘Mary Had A Little Lamb' and she played a whole tune around that."
Kitty began her musical career when she was 5 studying the classics under teachers in British Columbia. On her wall hang three certificates of completion from the Royal Academy of Music in Canada Â— certificates she prizes.
"I studied mostly under two old-maid sisters," Kitty said. "They were tops as teachers."
She started playing when she was a 5-year-old in the farming community of Mount Lehman, B.C., and she drove to New Westminster for her lessons. She's been at the piano ever since.
"I'll be playing till the last day," said the tiny pianist.
As a young woman she fell in love with jazz, but wasn't sure her strict teachers would approve.
"I never let my teachers know," she said.
Some of her memories have faded, but her son Gordon, who has moved to Kitty's house in Union to be near his mother, helps to fill in some of the gaps.
After Kitty met Ted Brettelle, a drummer, the two began playing jazz and pop in various clubs around Olympia, Wash.
According to Gordon Brettelle's memories, his parents performed at Lodge Springs near the Fort Lewis, Wash., Army post.
"Army bands came from all over the country to play there, and word got around about Lodge Springs," Gordon said. "People came. They loved to dance; loved to listen."
"I played anything they wanted," Kitty said.
Those were good times, but time passes and Kitty and Ted separated. Kitty's friends, the Watts family, were from Union, and they invited the pianist to visit, Gordon said.
"She loved this country," Gordon said.
She moved from Washington to Union in 1948 and occasionally performed at the Elks or Eagles lodges and other places, but she became best known in Northeast Oregon as a piano teacher. She moved to Wildflower two years ago.
How many students has she taught?
"Up in the thousands," she said.
Her son agreed.
In addition to teaching privately in her home and in the homes of students, Kitty taught for several years at the small Keating School, traveling 33 miles every Friday from her Union home to the tiny community. Part of her work there was volunteer, but she gave private lessons for a minimal cost. Children who could not pay could learn free.
A June 12, 1996, story in The Observer recounts her days with her students. She retired shortly after the story appeared.
Upon her retirement, a story in The Observer quoted her: "Wonderful, wonderful Keating, wonderful kids, wonderful people. These were the happiest days of my life, really."
Kitty remembered teaching her first classes when she was a girl no older than 10 or 12. She taught her friends.
Gordon told a story that illustrates Kitty's fame as a teacher.
"When I first came to Union, I met a veterinarian. When I gave my name, he said, Â‘Do you know Kitty Brettelle?' That happens all the time."
Her prestige as a piano teacher brought her the honor of being the grand marshal for the Eastern Oregon Livestock Show in the early 1990s.
Kitty reads music and plays by ear, retaining the ability to accompany a singer, which happens occasionally at Wildflower. Her ability to compose and improvise remains firmly in place.
"Sometimes you'll hear a new piece and ask her what it is," Spaete said. "She says, Â‘I just made it up.'"
Every day, Kitty walks by the front desk, and asks, "Is it all right if I play the piano?"
The answer is always "yes."
"You fill this place with music," Spaete said.