Sen. Lamar Alexander demonstrates his piano-playing skills for Roll Call in the rectory of St. Josephs Roman Catholic Church on Capitol Hill. Alexander rarely plays in public, but he plays regularly at home.
Last month, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) walked onto a stage high in his home states Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Senator took a seat at a piano, with the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra behind him.
As a crowd of thousands looked on, Alexander, dressed in a white-jacketed tuxedo, began playing Amazing Grace. He says as his fingers glided across the ivory keys, he was reminded of the early settlers who traveled to Tennessee.
Its a song that is really emblematic of the heritage of the park, he says. Youre sitting out there in the park on a Sunday afternoon with the mountains all around you and thinking about the heritage of the people who came here. This song brought those feelings out as much as anything.
Alexander chose to make this rare public performance in honor of the 75th anniversary of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Smokies, a Tennessee state treasure, have always been important to Alexander. In fact, he also played piano at the parks 50th anniversary in 1984.
I played some classics, then some country and then some gospel, he says of that performance.
While Alexander is known nationally as a Senator, a former secretary of Education and a former governor of Tennessee, he is also known around his home state as a classically trained pianist. Alexander, who began playing at age 4, says the lessons that he learned from the piano, such as the old saying practice makes perfect, helped him as he grew into a politician.
Good football players, good singers and good politicians practice a lot, he says.
Alexander first began playing the piano at his mothers insistence. She signed him up for music lessons at Maryville College in Tennessee, a short distance from his home.
I dont remember that I had any choice, the Senator says with a chuckle. Alexander took to the piano quickly, and it wasnt long before he was playing pieces by Bach and other well-known composers.
My favorite composer was Mozart, he says. I think because he wrote so many of his pieces at that age.
Alexanders father was a singer, and over time he began accompanying him on the piano at revival performances in Tennessee. As time passed and his schedule grew busier, Alexander still found time to play. He would often wake before the sun rose in order to complete his newspaper route and practice playing before school so that his afternoons would be free for football practice.
Its been a great source of joy for me, he says.