Life is a satisfying arrangement06/14/2018 08:30AM ● By J. Chambless
Wayne Carr stands beneath the metal arch he had constructed for the front of his Kennett Square home. (Photo by Natalie Smith)
For Wayne Carr, the thousands of people connections he’s made over the years can be traced back to one starting point: the piano.
Whether as performer, arranger, accompanist or instructor, the Kennett Square man has been sharing with others his lifelong love of the instrument, and the beauty he can charm from it with his inimitable panache.
Even before meeting Carr, it’s easy to pick out his home on the block. A cheery white house with blue accents, the small but immaculate yard boasts lush grass, and is decorated with small fountains and well-chosen flowers in the ground and in hanging baskets.
But what really sets the home apart are the personal touches. A custom metal archway at the top of the three steps leading from the walkway to the house is graced by musical notes; the welcome mat is decorated with a stylized piano keyboard; and the made-to-order mounted mailbox is in the shape of a grand piano, its lid lowering to accept delivered mail.
And in case there’s still any question that it’s Carr’s home, mounted on the bricks that comprise the chimney is a custom-made, 10-foot treble clef. The musical symbol also can light up, but its influence on a nearby computer-controlled traffic signal when lit convinced Carr to mostly keep it off.
In addition to the five pianos and one organ in the home, there are many mementos -- photos, awards and music-related knick-knacks – all rounding out the evidence of a well-lived life.
“There’s no doubt when you walk in my house that a musician lives here,” Carr said with a laugh.
His playing style, while certainly his own, bears the influences of the many artists with whom he was lucky enough to come in contact. One of the earliest was Liberace. The pianist, whose flourishes and showmanship became more pronounced during a career that spanned more than 40 years, caught a young Wayne Carr’s attention in the 1950s.
“When I was 3 1/2 or 4 years old, I remember I would sit in my high chair and my mother and I would watch Liberace on television,” Carr said. “I would be eating, and I would watch this man and he would be playing the piano and smiling, and there would be wonderful music. I thought, 'I kind of like that.'”
That impression set Carr on his life’s path. It was during a family visit to his aunt’s house when they sat Carr in front of her piano, so he could reach the keys. “And I remember for the next hour and a half, I was just enamored by this,” he said. “My aunt said to my mom, ‘Joyce, you need to come over and look at this. You need to get him lessons.' When I was 6, my mom said to my dad, ‘We’re getting him a piano for Christmas.’”
Carr’s father was skeptical, and suspected his son would quickly lose interest, but his mother insisted.
Mom was right. “I had to practice. Didn't mind practice. When I was 7, 8, 9 years old, I’d practice two, two and a half hours a day. Sure, I’d watch TV, or go out and play stickball. But [when practicing], I could be in my own little world. I played hours and hours and hours. It took me through my first year of college.”
His second experience got Carr even closer to the famed Liberace, after participating in a competition he sponsored. When Carr was 16, he entered the contest in which participants had to play and demonstrate their skills as pianists. Carr came in first place. He got to go backstage after one of the performer’s shows at the Miami Beach Convention Hall.
“I'll never forget it. He asked me if I wanted to play a duet,” Carr said. Liberace also taught Carr several of his piano techniques. “He was working with young people at the time and he asked me if I wanted to participate. But my parents told me, 'No, you're going to school.'”
While disappointed, Carr saw the wisdom of their words. And he kept playing piano. But not just the expected recitals. As a student at Miramar High, he agreed to play just about any time he was asked. He acted as accompanist for school choirs, church services and even got a weekend gig playing at a popular ice cream joint. Carr played so much that he earned the nicknames of “88 Keys,” and “Flying Fingers.” The moniker “Mr. Piano” has stuck with him to this day, and his vanity license plate is the proof.
“The first time I got paid was at Jaxon’s Ice Cream Parlour in Dania Beach,” he said. “They had a honky-tonk piano. I played there for two years. Everybody else was out on the weekend. But I'd make 160 bucks, which was a lot in the 1960s.”
What did he do with his cash, despite his father’s advice that he save? Carr laughed. “Went out to eat, bought clothes and a car. My first car was a Volkswagen, which I loved. Then I bought a Mustang.”
Carr recalled fondly his first “real concert” was as part an evening of music presented by the Performing Arts Society of Greater Miami Beach. The recital was at the then-Playboy Plaza Hotel in Miami. “I got to be the showcased pianist,” he said. “There were 2,100 people in the audience. I played Chopin’s ‘Polonaise.'”
He also started taking on students, and continues to this day. “I had maybe 12 or 15 students before I went away to school. I really enjoyed it,” he said. “I thought, 'How am I going to explain to somebody?' because I had no formal training. But I loved it so much, I would only end up with students who really wanted to do it. What I was actually doing was tailor-making the lesson to each student.”
Carr’s later students weren’t all kids and teens. “I taught a lot of professional people over the years,” he said. “I've found that people just want to play the piano. I love it so much that I know what you really want. You want to learn how to do something, but you need to practice.”
In addition to teaching, Carr is an in-demand performer, but often plays where his fancy strikes. A stroll to a nearby senior center led Carr to offer to play some afternoons. If there is a piano, chances are he might sit down and play a few tunes.
While in college, Carr found that he also had a skill for musical arrangement. His insatiable curiosity for how other musicians pulled together a song led him to seek out popular pianists such as Ferrante and Teicher, and Roger Williams, and be rewarded with warm friendships.
“I would watch them,” he said of the well-known performers, “and listen to them and just soak it in. I didn't have an orchestra, so I had to be the orchestra. All my arrangements are very flourished. They have a lot of things to them. I can make them sound trumpet-y, flute-y ... I can make it sound very orchestral.”
A final near-encounter with Liberace in 1987 was after he again placed first in the pianist’s competition. “He was going to take first-, second- and third-place winners along with him to perform in Vegas,” Carr said. Unfortunately, Liberace’s ill health and eventual death prevented it.
When a piece of music intrigues Carr, he does his best to track down how it was done. He even received the original sheet music from the Alfred Hitchcock film, The Man Who Knew Too Much, by famed composer Bernard Herrmann, which he copied and returned to the estate.
Carr’s musical background ties in closely with his religious beliefs. When he moved to Pennsylvania 35 years ago, it was to take a job with the Glen Mills-based Triumphant Communications Network, an evangelical Christian organization which presented spiritual production in the U.S. and beyond. He’s also recorded four albums; primarily praise songs, but with the Carr spin.
“I was classically trained, of course. So whether the music is praise or popular, I incorporate classical music through both,” he said. “My signature piece, 'My Life Is In You, Lord,' is a praise song. But when you hear it … I actually construct or arrange the piece of music. Put the rhythm and harmonies to it. All the right hand and flourishes. So there's a little bit of Roger Williams, a little bit of Liberace, a little bit of Ferrante and Teicher.”
Carr says he’s very appreciative of the friendships and lessons learned. “I'm a musician and a born-again Christian,” he said. “I'm thankful and grateful to God for everything I have, because he's allowed me to have it, and I recognize it. But there have been people in my life who have added and given. And I've taken and given.”
He's developed a personal philosophy that he says perfectly sums up his outlook.
“Regret will never change your past. Anxiety will never change your future. But gratitude will always change your present,” he said.
Natalie Smith may be contacted at [email protected].