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Pianist Jim McDonough creating connections through Facebook Live concerts

Pianist Jim McDonough addresses his live audience as a friend monitors the live feed on his page at his home in Cedar Ra
Pianist Jim McDonough addresses his live audience as a friend monitors the live feed on his page at his home in Cedar Rapids on Friday, March 20, 2020. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
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Jim McDonough is building a community, one note at a time.

The notes come from all over the country — Texas, Georgia and South Carolina to Oklahoma, Nevada and California, as well as Canada and across the Midwest. Listeners are watching his virtual concerts, to hear the notes that fly off McDonough’s fingers and onto the Steinway grand piano in his southeast Cedar Rapids home.

His St. Patrick’s Day noon concert went viral, racking up nearly 14,000 views.

“That’s a virus that we want,” he told those who tuned in for his concert the following Friday. As long as the demand remains, he’ll continue to do these 30-minute Facebook Live concerts on Tuesdays and Fridays. Tune in by “liking” and “following” his Jim McDonough Music page on the Facebook social media platform.

“This time together is about building a community, it’s about positivity,” he told Friday’s listeners.

Unlike the St. Patrick’s Day concert that featured Irish-themed music, he asked those listeners to send him a favorite song they would like to hear next time. They responded with more than 60 titles, many of which he “swirled” into a medley nearly half an hour long for Friday’s listeners.

Audience-request medleys grew out his early career years playing on cruise ships, and have become a standard feature of his concerts ever since.

On Friday, he added his flourish to favorite hymns like “How Great thou Art,” “In The Garden,” “It is Well with My Soul” and “A Mighty Fortress is our God”; such Broadway and movie hits as “Unchained Melody,” “Sunrise, Sunset,” “Memory,” “Music of the Night,” “As Time Goes By” and “Over the Rainbow”; pop and patriotic standards like “Wind Beneath My Wings,” “Hallelujah,” “What a Wonderful World” and “God Bless the U.S.A.”; and nostalgic pieces like “Satin Doll” and “You Are My Sunshine.”

He even tossed in touches of whimsy with “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas,” “Bumble Boogie,” “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” and a spirited “Chopsticks,” as well as a couple of classical favorites, including “Moonlight Sonata” and Pachelbel’s Canon in D.

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He told viewers he hasn’t memorized every single song, but hears them in his mind, and while he’s playing one from the request list, he’s singing the next one in his head.

“I just have (a list of) song titles,” he said. “So if I can sing a song in my mind, if I know how the tune goes — especially if I don’t overthink it — I can just turn my brain off and let myself play it. The piano knows all these songs. ... I just kind of live in them for a moment, and let my fingers tell the story.”

Musical odyssey

Now 45, McDonough’s story begins at age 7 in Monticello, when he began taking piano lessons. As a high school freshman, he “marched” into his hometown bank, and asked for a loan to buy a used Steinway medium-sized grand piano from Carma Lou’s House of Music in Cedar Rapids.

“He was stunned,” McDonough said of the loan officer.

The teen traded in the family upright piano, his parents co-signed the loan, and he made payments “for years” on the balance of just under $13,000. He still has that piano in his home studio, and still practices on it, although it’s a larger Steinway he plays when he gives his holiday home concerts and the current noontime series.

That first piano also was a lifesaver. In eighth grade, he accompanied the junior high choir. And while he was helping to move a piano across an elementary gym floor to prepare for a concert, it tipped over, crushing two fingers in his right hand.

As he recovered, he began taking left-hand piano lessons.

“I couldn’t use my right hand for a long time,” he said, and was in physical therapy for about a year and a half.

“I was really determined to get back to the piano. It was the thing that defined me,” he said. “I think like a lot of people in the arts, I was not going to be an athlete, I was not going to be an astronaut. This was the one thing I was really pretty good at, and it was bringing me a lot of satisfaction and positive reinforcement. What kid doesn’t like to have that? The piano and music gave me that, and then it was going to be taken away.”

Buying his first Steinway that following year gave him the motivation to continue and strive to play again. At one point, his doctor told him he had lost 25 percent of the movement in those injured fingers, and it’s still not back to 100 percent.

“Using my hands helped get back the range of motion, the dexterity,” he said. “Who knows — maybe I’ve compensated. But that is how music has helped me through a time like that — to be motivating and distracting.

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“We look to the arts for so many things — the distraction or release, whether it’s at a theater or a movie — we can just get lost in it, and I think we could use that maybe more now than ever.”

Career moves

He studied music education at Wartburg College in Waverly, then taught high school band for two years before feeling the need to change course. Completely.

He followed in his sister’s footsteps and became an air traffic controller at the second-busiest center in the world, located in Chicago. But after a couple of years, he felt the siren song of music. During a monthlong vacation from the control center in the summer of 2000, he got the chance to fill in for a pianist on a cruise ship. He jumped aboard, launching his professional piano career.

“It’s like I had died and gone to heaven,” he said. “I went from one of the most stressful jobs in the world to taking requests playing songs that make people’s eyes light up.”

Dry land beckoned, and in 2002, he moved his base of operations back to Monticello, renting commercial space and living quarters. But by 2017, he was ready to put everything under one roof, and landed in Cedar Rapids.

Along with giving concerts, recording albums and conducting a holiday tour around the state, in 2010, he became a certified Steinway Artist. There, he joined the ranks of Emanuel Ax, Harry Connick Jr., Billy Joel, Ellis Marsalis and others, as well as the “Immortals” including Van Cliburn, Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington, Edvard Grieg, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers and John Philip Sousa.

“It’s like a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval,” McDonough said. But don’t let that fool you. He had to be nominated, fill out a lengthy form, submit examples of his artistry, then have it all put to the vote of a selection committee.

“It was such a great day when I found out,” he said. “It’s a wonderful thing.”

The designation doesn’t have a paycheck attached. The only obligation is to perform as often as possible on a Steinway piano.

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Seeing the joy on people’s faces and hearing their kind comments are their own special reward. And that’s what he’s feeling from his noontime concerts.

“So many of our artistic outlets are suffering right now. As a population, we need those things, and we have less access to them in a traditional way,” he said. “This is not traditional, but it’s a way that we can still provide that.

“I find it as satisfying — maybe more than the people on the other side of the computer — because it gives me a project that’s very positive, and yet I’m enjoying sitting here and seeing all these songs that people are requesting. On a human level, it’s been great for me, as well. ...

“If I can play a few songs and make someone’s day better, mission accomplished. And if that person becomes an ongoing member of my online community, mission accomplished. If they end up in a concert seat someday, great. If they buy my music, great,” he said.

“But this is about community — this is not about income.”

Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

How to watch

What: Jim McDonough Live

Where: Click “like” and “follow” on Facebook.com/jimmcdonoughmusic/

When: Noon on Tuesday and Friday, Central time

Cost: Free

Artist’s website: Pianofavorites.com/

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Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.