90-year-old woman gives inspiration through lifestyle, music

News 12 at 6 o'clock / Friday, Dec. 16, 2011

AIKEN, S.C. -- A world-class pianist has found her way from New York to Aiken, and already, she's sharing her talent with the community she now calls home.

Her gift, however, is more than just the gift of music: It's the gift of inspiration.

Her fingers tell a story in a language they speak fluently, and 90-year-old Helga Hulse feels every word she coaxes out of every note. She is eloquent as she converses with the keys, but there's also music in her voice.

She seems to coax notes out of words.

"People who spent their lives in the pursuit of beauty have a special radiance that I can certainly feel in their presence," she said with a melody that almost makes you forget she is speaking and not singing.

She wasn't describing herself, but she was talking about her teachers. Her first was her mother, who began Helga's musical education at the age of 3. By the time she was 7 years old, she was studying at the Chicago Music College where she made more than just a name for herself.

She made a promise to her mentor.

"He said whenever anyone asks you to play, you say, 'Thank you. I would be delighted.' You must never refuse to play when you are asked to play," she said.

Helga has never refused.

"Even if the piano has not been tuned for 50 years and the pedals are broken and keys are missing, have something in your repertoire that will sound good on a bad piano," she said.

And then, just like her teacher also made her promise so many years ago, she offers to play another.

"So, it's a lesson in life, too," Helga said. "We must always be willing to give more than we are asked."

Helga always gives more. The day we met her she was speaking at an assembly for Mead Hall Students at St. Thaddeus Episcopal Church.

And of course, playing.

The students responded with their hands up to her hands-on approach. They weren't even born in the same century, but the music makes this moment timeless. Her gift is a gift to these students and is one she hopes to give to others any chance she gets.

Music isn't Helga's only gift. Her daily walks are inspiring, too. At 90 years old, she walks more in one day than most in their 20s walk in a month.

"Well, they have their lovely automobiles," Helga laughed. "That's why."

But Helga said those lovely automobiles make us all hurry through life and that can make life pass us by.

"When I'm walking, I can enjoy living," Helga smiled. "And I enjoy every moment of it."

She walks 3 miles to practice and then 3 miles home. She walks to teach piano, but she also walks to compose thoughts and music.

"We always listen for something we've never heard before," she said. "That's a lesson in musicianship."

But really, it's a lesson for more than just musicians. It reminds us to take note of our community, to notice everything, to pay attention, to walk and to live.

And just like Helga always asks if she can play another song, she can inspire us to do the same.

Helga started a program in New York teaching piano to prison inmates and was able to change lives with her music. She was in her 80s at the time. The paper in Jamestown, N.Y., wrote an article on her move South, calling her "a living, breathing enchantment who will be missed."

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