Of all the piano-playing couples throughout the history of pianos and couples, perhaps the best couple to ever play together lived in Cedar Rapids from 1974 to 1992.
Bill and Patricia Medley’s love for the piano and each other struck a chord that would resonate for nearly 75 years.
The two met in 1944 at a summer singing school in Hot Springs, Ark. Bill Medley had just graduated from high school in Lubbock, Texas. Pat Duncan, from Springfield, Ark., had just finished her junior year. Both were piano-playing instructors at the school.
Bill Medley joined the Army during World War II and was stationed at Army posts throughout the southern United States. He returned in 1946 and married Pat in Morrilton, Ark.
Bill couldn’t read music as well as Pat, so they attended a smaller school — Arkansas Tech in Russellville, Ark. — so he could catch up on the basics. Three weeks into their formal education, the Medleys mastered their first pieces written for two pianos. They were playing two-piano concerts by the end of the semester.
A notable duo-piano couple, Boyd and Helen Ringo, saw them perform and recruited them to attend the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma, where the Ringos were professors. The Medleys earned bachelor and master of music degrees there, teaching youngsters along the way while honing their piano duo craft.
They returned to Arkansas Tech to teach and fortify their duo repertoire for four years before launching an illustrious performance career that would involve more than a thousand concerts and recitals in 47 U.S. states, all 10 Canadian provinces and Australia.
The Medleys played hallowed stages and performed with notable orchestras, but their forte was bringing piano music to smaller cities, something they enjoyed and believed was important.
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They even drove across a frozen lake, with two tons of 9-foot Baldwin grands in tow, to give the first-ever piano recital in Canada’s Northwest Territory.
They averaged 80 performances a year through the 1950s and set a duo-piano concert record of 119 shows in the 1958-59 season.
A thirst for knowledge drove the Medleys to Maine during lulls in their tours so they could study with the world-renowned duo-piano team of Pierre Luboshutz and Genia Nemenoff. This arrangement lasted for 10 years.
Their first Iowa teaching gig was at Parsons College in Fairfield. They arrived in 1963 and were only required to teach during two of each year’s three semesters, which allowed them to continue to tour on a smaller scale.
To mount mercy
Richard Williams, the conductor of the Cedar Rapids Symphony, was instrumental in luring the Medleys 95 miles north to Cedar Rapids when Parsons closed in 1973.
Mount Mercy College had a music program that was in decline, so Williams nudged the dean into offering the Medleys teaching positions. The Medleys took over a Mount Mercy music program that owned one piano and a harp. It was in a basement.
The Medleys’ penchant for education transformed the Mount Mercy music program as they developed a special focus on the teaching of music. Hundreds of piano students were taught by Mount Mercy students who were simultaneously being taught how to teach by the Medleys.
Versatility was key
William Whipple, a lecturer on piano music at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and a former Medley student who ended up writing his University of Iowa dissertation on the couple, says the Medleys enjoyed long careers in the piano universe because they were so versatile.
“They were in demand as performers but extremely social and could interact with concertgoers at receptions that usually followed their performances,” Whipple says. “But they were also pedagogically sound.”
Whipple notes the Medleys’ reputation for the development of the pianist’s left hand in their teaching approach. They ended up publishing many books and teaching materials in their Hal Leonard method series called “The Medley Way.” They also published many of their own compositions arranged for a wide spectrum of skill levels.
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The couple retired in 1991 and moved to Fayetteville, Ark., where they were active volunteers, taught private lessons, rewrote the syllabus for the Arkansas State Music Teachers Association, started a music competition and even taught at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Ark. They returned to Cedar Rapids in 1992 for a final showcase performance with the Cedar Rapids Symphony.
Bill and Patricia Medley died in 2018 and 2019, respectively, survived by Michael Medley, one of their twin sons. Whipple says they always talked of Mount Mercy and Cedar Rapids as their true home.
This year, Whipple started a piano competition in their honor. Seventy Wisconsin students from fourth- to 12th-grade submitted videos to participate in the first Bill and Pat Medley Pre-College Piano Competition. The competition next year could include students in surrounding states, including Iowa.
Joe Coffey is a freelance writer and content marketer in Cedar Rapids, who writes this monthly column for The History Center. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org