Playing beautiful music again

By Linda Salisbury, Correspondent

The haunting strains of Sir Elton John’s Your Song can be heard from outside the door leading to Comer Piano Studio in a back room of the historic Mineral Baptist Church building. Steve Comer’s fingers improvised on the haunting melody as they covered the length of the keyboard.

The playing was all the more impressive because in 2012 Comer, his wife, and two of his children were badly burned when a propane tank in their recreational vehicle exploded while they were camping in Williamsburg during the Memorial Day holiday.

Comer said all four of them suffered second- and third-degree burns. The musician’s hands, as well as other parts of his body, needed extensive skin grafts. While Comer was unconscious for four weeks at the Virginia Commonwealth University burn unit, his father and wife made a decision. The skin for the grafts for his hands would be thicker than that used on other parts of his body so that it would be more flexible for playing the piano again.

By the time he was conscious, he said, “I had recovered to a great extent. I was surprised that I would be able to play.” But he wasn’t sure how well. “Thank the Lord, I regained full strength in my hands, with the full flexibility I needed.”

He was able to return to Elk Creek Church, where he served as the music director, both as accompanist and choir director. Then when a job as accompanist opened up at Mineral Baptist Church, he was hired. For a while he taught piano in the parish hall, but then the church offered to give him studio space in the adjacent historic building.

In June, Comer Piano Studio opened as the only such studio in Mineral or Louisa, though there are other piano teachers in the area. Comer said in November that he has 13 students. About half are adults and the other half are youngsters. Some have had piano lessons in the past, and others are just beginning. One of his most recent students is his son, Christopher, a senior at Louisa High School.

In June, with extensive visible scars on their arms and hands, father and son both participated in a piano master class at the Louisa Arts Center. Classical pianist Lynne Mackey invited pianists to play for her on stage in front of a small audience, and then she offered suggestions for improvement. It would be a daunting experience even for good players. Comer dazzled both Mackey and listeners with a very difficult Chopin waltz, and Christopher did very well with a jazz piece with a detective theme. The melody captured the idea of a sleuth creeping around to solve a crime. The challenging master class didn’t faze either the father or his teenage son.

“He doesn’t get rattled,” said Comer.

While on stage, Christopher told Mackey that his father was not his teacher. He was teaching himself.

Comer said that he had given Christopher lessons for two or three years, “but then he had lost interest for a while.” After the master class, Christopher wanted to take piano lessons again. In addition to his music, Christopher is also an excellent student at Louisa High School. He was recently honored for having top SAT scores, making him eligible for a National Merit Scholarship. Christopher is applying to college and wants to study physics.

Comer’s teaching schedule fits into his other work, which is preparing income tax forms during tax season. Despite his musical talents, he didn’t take music classes in college. Instead he was a business major at George Mason University in Fairfax. He took piano lessons as a child, and by the time he was 17, he was the official accompanist for Providence Baptist Church in Vienna. He realized he could make more money with employment in finance, and then in computer programming.

When his wife, Christina, who worked for the Defense Department, was transferred to Charlottesville, the family moved in 2009 to Louisa County. He continued both his tax work and music. In 2015 “I seriously started teaching,” he said.
One of Comer’s daughters, Michelle, is in her second year at Virginia Tech studying computer science. The couple’s oldest daughter, Lilah, who wasn’t with them during the camping trip, is married and the mother of their only grandchild, Angelina, 2, who is already showing an interest in the piano.

It isn’t a coincidence that Your Song is one of Comer’s favorites. A phrase from the lyrics proclaims “how wonderful life is.” The Comer family, with support from the community after the devastating fire, knows how precious and wonderful life is.

“We are blessed,” said Comer.

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