story and photo by Bill Weaver
It’s a rainy night and people stay home on rainy nights, don’t they? Not in Helmsburg. Not tonight. Seating at the Figtree Gallery and Coffee Shop has long since been filled, yet they continue to arrive. People that have heard, or have heard about, the remarkable Sanderson family.
Onstage Jerome Sanderson acts as master of ceremonies as he accompanies his sons on guitar. He introduces each song, concisely explaining its origin and tradition, while encouraging his sons and sharing his warm pride and sense of fun with the audience.
But it is John, 13, and Michael, 12, that have the audience’s attention as they play a wide range of traditional music from gypsy to bluegrass, Scots, Irish and classical violin.
I ask Jerome how his children came to play at such an early age.
“They’ve lived in an atmosphere of music. My wife and I both play violin, we both have a musical background. All the kids would bang on the piano. They just started playing.
“John started when he was three. He showed a quick aptitude so he was playing county fairs and all that by the time he was four or five. Micha, started a little bit later, he was 6. Both Marie (4) and Molly (8) are studying piano. Molly’s studying violin. They both go up to the piano and pick out songs by ear.”
Jerome has played music most of his life. ”I was part of the ’60s rock band thing back in the era of Hendrix and the Beatles, then went to more traditional fiddle and bluegrass. Then the kids came along and started playing some of that, too.
“We generally play about twice a month—nursing homes, Lions Club, Rotary, Psi Iota Xi, fund raisers, weddings, the county fair, all kinds of things. Before the children were born I played with other musicians. By the time John was four he started joining in. They’ve been playing music probably as long as they can remember. It’s been their whole lives.”
The Sandersons moved to Brown County from Indianapolis. “We owned land here and built a cabin, then moved down about seven years ago. I love the woods. I love the peace. I love getting away from the clamor of the big city. We have 28 acres with horses, chickens and goats,” he laughs. “We just enjoy the woods.
“The county as a whole is one of the most beautiful counties that I’ve seen anywhere.”
Sanderson works for Quillfire Sign and Graphic near Helmsburg. “The kids are home schooled. My wife teaches and runs the home.”
“They get schooled in the morning and music in the afternoon,” adds Anna Sanderson.
“They’ve had a number of music teachers over the years,” Jerome says, “including Pat Lundin in Nashville. We started them out with fiddle and so forth but they’ve outgrown that long since.”
Mrs. Sanderson continues, “My husband and I have taken a back seat. Our boys have gone beyond us. We play back up now.”
“John practices two hours every day very faithfully,” Jerome says. “There’s a temptation parents can have to try to push a child for their own glory. All along the way we’ve tried to say, ‘Is this what you really want to do? We’re going to try to help you stay committed but if you don’t want to do it then let us know.’ He really wants to do it. We’ll see where it goes.”
“One of the things that got them grounded in music was that we didn’t have a TV,” Anna notes. “We used to sit in the evening and play music together. The boys especially have done that since they were very young. That’s the real foundation for them.”
“Sometimes when you walk through the house you hear music coming out of this room and music coming out of that one, music coming upstairs,” Jerome adds with a laugh.
John is studying with a full scholarship at the Indiana University School of Music. “It’s one of the best programs in the world of its kind, under Mimi Zweig. Joshua Bell was one of her students. I think he’s got every opportunity to go where he wants to go. They both do if they want.
“Both boys are pretty humble about what they do,” he observes. “John plays with a lot of other kids who play as well as he does or better. And that’s good for him. It’s hard for him to get a big head.”
I ask Jerome what it’s like playing at the Figtree, a coffee shop, restaurant and art gallery in Helmsburg filled with African art, unusual objects, paintings—and some very serious chairs.
“We played here December 5th last year and we didn’t expect to see anyone because it was after the first big snowstorm of the year. It was very difficult to get here, but it was packed.
“Our performances builds to a crescendo, like fireworks, the big thing is at the end. It’ll be good for you just to see the reaction of the audience. They generally love the performance. The boys are really good.”
“But don’t get too excited,” John warns, betraying a wry sense of humor.
Jerome, John, and Michael work their way through St. Anne’s Reel, Scotland the Great, and Soldier’s Joy. Their music is at times melancholy, playful, and energetic. When John plays a solo the audience responds appreciatively. They’ve come here to see something extraordinary and they are not disappointed.
By popular demand eight year old Molly is persuaded to try her hand at the piano. Though unscheduled, she plays a Kuhlau Sonatina from memory. Her fingers are small and can barely make the stretch, which hampers her at times, but she continues to the delight of the adoring crowd.
Jerome switches between guitar and piano all evening. When they play Red River Valley the audience hums along. By the time they render an unnamed gypsy melody the Figtree seems more like a living room full of good friends, like the old days, when folks played music together instead of watching American Idol on TV.
The muscles in John’s bow arm ripple as he plays America the Beautiful and the audience unabashedly sings along.
It’s a well-paced set that shows off John’s versatility and originality. I’ve heard a thousand variations of Orange Blossom Special but he found something new there, skillfully played without being overwrought.
The last song of the evening is Fritz Kreisler’s Praeludium and Allegro, John’s showpiece, maybe his reward. The audience rises for a standing ovation and, finally, he smiles.