Bill Kaplan has been a familiar face – and a welcomed presence – at The Selfhelp Home for nearly six years.
Bill is “The Piano Man”. He launched his relationship with Selfhelp volunteering with violinist Howard Weiss Z”L (a previous resident) to present the monthly sing-alongs that are so enjoyed by residents and staff alike.
“Music is something very deep in our existence. It is fundamental, unlike anything else I can think of,” he said. “So I’m very fortunate, blessed, that I discovered music at an early age and have stayed with it and was able to make a living doing what I love. I am proud that through my work I give people pleasure.”
Bill and his two older brothers were born and raised in Madison, Wisconsin, where his Russian immigrant parents had met and married. His parents recognized his passion and talent early on. “I could go to the piano and pick out a tune; my mom realized there was something there. While we had no special musical environment in the home, and not much money, my folks worked very hard and made it possible for me to study.”
After high school Bill continued his education at The Juilliard School in New York, where he studied clarinet. He added bassoon to his repertoire, calculating that his chances of employment were far greater because so few people played. While still an undergraduate he began playing professionally.
He graduated from Juilliard in 1951, one year into the Korean War. His army service was at Ft. Sheridan, north of Chicago, where he played in the band. Following his service, he began graduate study at the University of Chicago, where he met his wife, Shirley, a psychiatric social worker. Bill received his master’s in 1956.
Bill played in the Denver Symphony for six years and then decided to further his studies, taking advantage of scholarship assistance to pursue a doctorate at University of Michigan. While living in Ann Arbor, he successfully auditioned for the Detroit Symphony. Bill and Shirley married in 1961, and thoughts turned to family and stability.
The new University of Illinois Chicago Circle Campus (UIC) was searching for qualified faculty to staff their Department of Music. Bill, now with a doctorate, was ready, willing and able to answer the call, bringing the couple back to Chicago.
At UIC, Bill taught courses in theory, counterpoint, analytic techniques, ear training, music literature and music appreciation, and served as department
chairman from 1979 until his retirement in 1992. He continued to perform as a free-lance artist in symphonic ensembles as well as theatrical productions.
“I got lots of engagements. A free-lance musician relies on the telephone, and that was fun.” He also played with the critically acclaimed Music of the Baroque for 30 years, an affiliation of which he is particularly proud.
Bill and Shirley raised their two daughters in Wilmette, joining a local synagogue and following Shirley’s more observant upbringing and beliefs. Bill’s connection to Judaism had been cultural. “My family was not religious. I didn’t study Hebrew and I and was not Bar Mitzvah. But there was an organization, The Workman’s Circle, a progressive Jewish social justice organization where my brothers and I went to study Yiddish.” Bill’s embrace of Judaism once he had a family of his own resonated deeply, leading him to pursue the necessary study and achieve adult Bar Mitzvah in his 60s.
Six years ago Shirley died. It was around that time that Dr. Howard Weiss Z”L (now deceased), whose wife was a Selfhelp resident, reached out to Bill to launch the sing-alongs. “The gift that I have always had is that I did not need to read music. I could sit down at the piano and fake it. Someone calls out “play ‘Night and Day,’ and I could just do it. I didn’t have to be a great pianist to do that. But it is loads of fun.”
A few years ago, Bill realized that it was time to move from the family home. “I was alone. It wasn’t terrible, but little by little I realized I could do something else. Selfhelp was the right place for me.”
“Life can be very challenging when you are over a certain age,” reflects Bill, “but the Home’s staff works very hard to make this a community; that’s one of the reasons Selfhelp is very successful. All the residents have a sense of being supported and there are lots of activities. It is also very nice being in a Jewish environment, having Friday services and events around the Jewish holidays. There are good vibes here.”