School accompanist expresses 25 years of service through song

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Lori Frailey has been an accompanist for Prairie du Chien middle and high school students since 1995. (Photo by Correne Martin)

By Correne Martin

I should’ve asked her to play a melody. But I didn’t need to. The gleam in her eyes was grand enough to resonate the sweetest, most lyrical song. 

Playing piano is like speaking a language for Lori Frailey. 

“It expresses more than words can say,” she said.

Since 1995, Lori has been an accompanist for middle school and high school music students at Prairie du Chien. Her notes enhance kids’ musical experiences while also giving her a perfectly-matched creative outlet. 

This volunteer role for Lori is in addition to playing one church service every weekend, leading a church choir, teaching regular piano students, performing twice a month at a nursing home, providing music for funerals and weddings, occasionally playing at the prison, coordinating the Thanksgiving community choir and accompanying special church services as necessary. 

“Music is what I like to do,” said the lifelong pianist, whose day job has been in accounting for Dillman Equipment for 23 years. 

Lori is a preacher’s daughter. Her mom came from a musical family too. She and her sister got a piano and learned to play at a very early age. 

“I started when I was 5,” she recalled. “By junior high, I was already playing for church and accompanying for my peers.”

Through college, while studying music and theology, Lori also had piano students, livened up contemporary worship services and otherwise “plugged in wherever there was a need.”

It wasn’t until she was married with children in school that her daughters “ratted” her skills out to the music teacher. 

She started serving as accompanist for nearly all instrumental and vocal solo and ensemble performances, concerts and musicals for Prairie du Chien. It’s been about 25 years since. She’s played for River Ridge and Wauzeka students too over the years. 

Estimating the tempo at which she works with these young musicians, Lori said, this year, she’s meeting with 19 middle school and about 15 high school kids. “That’s a small year,” she added. 

Solo and ensemble students, for instance, come to her having somewhat learned their chosen songs with their instructor. For middle schoolers, she and the teacher rehearse together with the students. For the high schoolers, she spends most practice time alone with them. She said she has no problem offering them constructive criticism and suggestions on all aspects of their performances, from rhythms to expression.

“I really like seeing them progress as musicians,” Lori commented, candidly continuing. “Of course, you have the obsessive ones who are gonna nail it, and then there’s the others who haven’t seen their instrument since you last met.”

As each student learns a new selection, oftentimes, their faithful pianist is mastering it right alongside them. 

“Over the years, there’s repeats,” she said. “The class C (songs), I can pretty much sight-read. The others, I like to practice to make sure the student is most comfortable every time we run through it.” Generally, those rehearsals add up to three or four times with each kid before contest day and, if a contestant moves on to state, Lori continues on too. 

“Her greatest quality is her willingness to help out anytime,” said Matt Lenz, Prairie du Chien High School music/band teacher, who has worked with Lori for 19 years. “It’s not unusual for her to adjust her lunch break to weird times to sneak over here and work with the students.”

Humble as she is though, Lori attributes that ability to her employer’s flexibility. “If it wasn’t for them letting me have comp time, we wouldn’t be able to accomplish all we have,” she stated. 

Lori said she’s always been impressed with the hard work and talent of the local music teachers and students. She’s pleased for the chance to collaborate with some of the school’s most dynamic kids. 

Lori sees her behind-the-scenes position as harmonious within Prairie du Chien’s music department as a whole. 

“I’m happy to contribute to help the teachers do whatever they want in terms of music,” she said, “and I like to see the kids express all their different personalities.”

According to Lenz, it’s Lori who helps bring the performance out of the students. “She has a gift ... her wealth of experience in music really helps to enhance everything we try to do in our music department. I’m not sure where we would be without her.”

Though the entertainment value of music is clear, Lori also believes it releases “feel-good chemicals” in those creating and hearing it. 

“It is therapeutic when you can experience your emotions in a way that’s uplifting and not destroying,” she said. “Performing is scary but it’s a good feeling, and it’s a good skill for anybody to learn. It’s something you can use throughout life.”

Think about it. When a soloist or an ensemble crushes a challenging tune, spreading goose bumps through the crowd, it’s only a small collection of powerful notes that evoke those unparalleled emotions. 

“It’s an adrenaline rush,” as Lori described.

Music moves people. 

In Lori, it certainly evokes passion. It keeps her in tune with her piano, and with the kids she loves accompanying. 

“I really enjoy teaching the kids how to play expressively and put in that little something extra,” she said. “This is their gift, and when you’re using your gift, it brings you joy.”

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