It’s a sunny Wednesday and Homeland residents are enjoying a lunch of salmon patty or country-fried chicken in the Main Dining room as a pleasant string of tunes floats from the piano in the corner. The songs are familiar standards and Broadway classics – “Misty,” “People,” “Maria,” a medley from “The Sound of Music.”
Residents applaud each number. Some sing the words. Others converse quietly among themselves to a gentle musical accompaniment. While they clearly enjoy the music, only a few realize the pianist was an award-winning music teacher at Lebanon Valley College and Penn State Harrisburg, as well as a composer with a storied career.
Dr. Robert Lau comes to Homeland once a month during lunchtime to play a selection of tunes on Homeland’s Steinway grand piano, a gift from a former resident.
“I always enjoy him very much,” said resident Phoebe Berner. “He’s an accomplished musician.”
Lau grew up in a musical family and knew as a child that he would pursue a career in music. He started playing the violin at age 7. By his teen years, Lau was concertmaster for the Harrisburg Symphony Youth Orchestra. He earned a bachelor’s degree in music education from Lebanon Valley College and supported himself by playing piano at local nightspots. He earned master’s and doctoral degrees in theoretical studies from Eastman School of Music and Catholic University.
His composing career was inspired by a guest artist at a conference who suggested he try his hand at writing. When a former LVC student played one of his pieces for a master’s-degree recital in New York City, an eminent organist on the judging panel called Lau to say he wanted to have it published.
In total, Lau has written more than 500 pieces of music, mostly choral anthems and keyboard pieces. Around 2013, his best-selling “Sing To the Lord A New Song” made the American Choral Directors Association’s list of 10 anthems that members should know – a “meaningful moment,” he says, “because it came from my peers.”
Lau’s latest work, based on one of the biblical Psalms, premieres in April 2019 as a commission for Voices of the Valley’s 40th-anniversary concert. A touring choir at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome sang another piece -- an accomplishment requiring the stamp of approval from the Vatican itself.
While some classical musicians frown on playing lighter fare, Lau enjoys works by Broadway and pop composers. In retirement, he plays the organ for churches throughout the region. He began playing for Homeland’s residents in 2016.
Residents, he adds, are “very generous with their comments.” On this particular day, resident Rita Sperling approached Lau following his performance.
“I close my eyes, and I could see my mother play,” she told him. “When I played, it never sounded like that. My fingers didn’t work as well as theirs. It’s enjoyable when you can close your eyes and see your mother play piano.”
That is a typical reaction, Lau says.
“They’re such wonderful people,’’ he said. “Somebody always comes up to me and tells me how much they appreciate it. That makes it all worthwhile.”