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LAYTON — A simple click, a scroll through a list of songs, and then some background backup music. Gale Bramwell, 94, puts his fingers on the keys and takes a look at the sheet music. Down the fingers go as they glide across the organ keyboard and “Amazing Grace” fills the air.
After finishing, he slowly turns around and mutters something to the effect of “it wasn’t much.” And maybe it isn’t, but to him, and to many others who know and love Bramwell, this is a sign that you’re just never too old to learn something new.
Almost three years ago, for his 92nd birthday, Bramwell went out and bought an organ and started to teach himself to play after a decades-long hiatus. As he approaches 95 now, he practices on a regular basis and does small performances in his one-bedroom apartment at Fairfield Village in Layton, Utah.
Bramwell had a musical background. Growing up in Rigby, Idaho, he spent a lot of time on the farm. But to earn some money, he joined a seven-person band, “The Merry Makers,” and learned to play the trumpet. He spent many weekend nights entertaining at dances in the surrounding areas. When he met a cute girl — a lifeguard at the swimming pool named Izetta Hancock — she joined him and danced with his brother while he played.
That cute girl would later become his wife, but not without some difficulty in between. It was 1942 during World War II, and Bramwell enlisted in the Army Air Force. He was trained as a weather reconnaissance and B-29 pilot. He was never in combat, but he flew ahead to know weather patterns and report back to other pilots. In between his trainings, his girlfriend traveled to where he was stationed in Illinois so they could be married. She had to return; he had to stay. But they were finally married, and would soon after be sealed in the Salt Lake LDS Temple and start a life together.
After 10 years in the Air Force, they decided to move back to Rigby, Idaho, where they had first met.
I feel it's good for your health and good for your mental situation to be active that way.
“There really wasn’t much of a market for B-29 pilots in Rigby, Idaho,” he jokingly recalls. “So I bought a farm. I still have it.”
Gale and Izetta Bramwell built a house and farmed for many years. After about 15 years of marriage and two children, Bramwell got a crazy idea one day and went and bought an organ. He had always wanted to play, but he’d never had the chance. With the large organ in the house, Bramwell started teaching himself to play and soon could get a few tunes out. But time passed, the organ fell into disuse, and Bramwell gave the organ away to his niece.
The fingers stopped playing those tunes through children’s marriages, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They stopped for the years that Bramwell started working on the side as a carpenter. They stopped in the years that he started a photography studio (he had dabbled in photography as a photo officer in the Air Force). They stopped in the years of his illness and his years of care at an assisted living center. And they stopped in the years since his wife passed away. But at age 92, he knew he needed to keep his mind sharp and he remembered that old organ. Almost on a whim, he went and bought a new organ and some sheet music for his birthday.
His fingers hardly remembered the keys, and reading the notes was a task. But he started learning again. And after nearly two years of practice, he regularly entertains visitors in his apartment with a number of different songs on his classy organ. He has programmed background music for his songs, and he plinks away with his hands with some simple note structures. But it’s what he loves.
“I feel it’s good for your health and good for your mental situation to be active that way,” he said.
How does he stay so up to date? “Keep busy,” Bramwell says. That’s his advice to anyone. If you want to keep your mind sharp, then keep busy, keep learning, keep growing.
Bramwell’s next big adventure? Tackling “Begin the Beguine.” It’s an old favorite he used to play on his trumpet.
Elizabeth Stitt is a BYU journalism graduate and University of Utah professional MBA graduate. See her blog at lizstitt.blogspot.com