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Minnesota Sounds and Voices: Jane Belau's piano soothes Mayo patients

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Jane Belau
Jane Belau sings as she plays the piano while joined by David Hayden, seen in the piano's reflection. Belau volunteers her time every Monday and Thursday morning to play the piano in the Mayo Clinic's Gonda Building lobby. Her music entices others to sing and dance, as well as lift the spirits of patients.
Alex Kolyer for MPR

Music can be therapeutic.

So maybe it's no wonder that there is live music in the lobby of the Mayo Clinic's Gonda building every day. And whenever volunteer pianist Jane Belau is there, some patients and staff even perform with her.

Surrounded by cutting-edge medicine, Belau offers a different kind of treatment to anyone who wants to stop and listen, delivering a varied repertoire of sacred and secular music, from the hymns "Amazing Grace" and "How Great Thou Art" to show tunes like "Over The Rainbow" and patriotic numbers such as "God Bless America. "

Belau, of Rochester, performs for and sometimes with an amazing variety of people. Nearly everyone with any appointment at the Mayo Clinic passes through the lobby concert hall, among them farmers, sheiks and U.S. senators.

"When people come to Mayo it's generally for some type of treatment," said Anthony Cook, a Mayo employee and soulful crooner Belau often accompanies on piano. "So just the opportunity to hear beautiful music and beautiful, singing it just brings comfort to a lot of people."

Playing piano has long been a part of Belau's life, but it has shared space with a long business career and served as vice president for government relations at the former Twin Cities-based Control Data Corporation, later Ceridian. Her public service includes stints on the Minnesota State Arts Board and the University of Minnesota regents' candidate advisory panel.

She also hosts a long-running community cable access interview program, "The Belau Report," on Rochester's cable system.

Patients listening
Patients take some time to listen as Jane Belau plays the piano in the Mayo Clinic's Gonda Building. Belau volunteers her time every Monday and Thursday morning to play the piano for the Clinic's visitors and patients. Her music entices others to sing and dance, as well as lift the spirits of Mayo's patients.
Alex Kolyer for MPR

Belau began performing at Mayo 10 years ago when she walked in for an appointment and saw the lobby's grand piano. She sat down to tickle the ivories and quickly attracted an audience. The response came quickly, in requests for favorite tunes.

"It really was so much fun, I thought, 'I'm going to do this again,'" Belau said.

And she has, two days a week for a decade.

Sometimes she and Mayo employee Bruce Rohde sit down at the piano together for what Belau calls  "miracle tunes."

"I don't count very well so when we end together it's a miracle," she said.

Born Jane Gullickson, Belau grew up on a family farm near Fertile in northwestern Minnesota. She started piano lessons at age five.

The lessons ended when Belau was 11, but she stayed at the keyboard, playing through high school and for weddings, accompanying anyone who wanted to sing.

After balancing her love of music with marriage, family and her business career, Belau said, something remarkable happened: she started playing without sheet music.

Jane Belau
Jane Belau volunteers her time every Monday and Thursday morning to play the piano in the Mayo Clinic's Gonda Building lobby. Her music entices others to sing and dance, as well as lift the spirits of Mayo's patients.
Alex Kolyer for MPR

"I got the gift of playing by ear in mid-life in my 50's," said Belau, who still expresses wonder at the development.

Belau can carry the show by herself as her hands channel the hundreds of tunes stored in her brain. But she enjoys accompanying others, especially when she can ease a patient's suffering.

Mayo clinic patient Kay Kuhn of West Union, Iowa, a cancer survivor who sings with her, tries to schedule appointments around the times Belau plays, so they can perform together.

Other Belau fans absorb her music.

Rochester resident Elaine Bergeron said her lung cancer is beyond treatment. She draws comfort from listening to Belau in the Gonda lobby or on CD's. 

"Music does a lot for the soul, it heals people," Bergeron said. "There are times when I'm really down I'll take and play her music and it lifts me up."

Near the end of a recent two-hour volunteer gig, Belau has played at least a couple dozen tunes, and accompanied vocalists on most of them.  

An older man, a bit unsteady on his feet with a big bandage on his head stopped to thank her.

"You made my day," he said.