'Because I Like It' Says Facebook Polka Star
Editor's note: As overlord of Polka Beat’s Facebook page, I unscientifically monitor reactions to my postings. For the last several months, I have noticed a higher than normal “like” and comment responses from followers after posting the performances of Kelsey J. Lien, which inspired this story. When asked for a reason why he chose polka out of his extensive knowledge of music, he replied “Because I like it.” Here is the story of this interesting and extremely talented young man and I believe it is only the beginning.
Kelsey J. Lien, has made music his life. He started singing and playing piano as a young lad. His mother’s musical background inspired him as there was always a piano in the house and he gravitated toward it. Kelsey’s mother would sit down, play and sing, inviting Kelsey and his two brothers to learn and join in. The Lien brothers experienced a wide range of music that permeated their young lives: when traveling, the car radio was on or a tape was in, and they sang along. Most of it was pop music and the only polka that Kelsey heard was on an 8-track that Mom played.
The 8-track contained the music of his maternal grandfather’s band, The Myron Pecka (PETSKA) Orchestra. The Pecka Orchestra was based in Lawton, North Dakota (present population 29), 40 miles below the Canadian border. Myron Pecka took over The Bennie Pesek Orchestra in 1972, after Bennie retired from a 35-year run.
The Pecka band membership mirrors other Czech bands in Texas. Myron’s brother Laddie, Laddie’s wife, Rosie Pesek Pecka, and Rosie’s brothers, Laddie and Joey Pesek. Laddie, was well known for the ability to play two trumpets at once, an ability that he learned at the age of 15 when Myron left home and there was no one to practice with. After Myron’s passing in 1982, the band continued on as The Laddie Pecka Orchestra for several years until time took its toll. On occasions Laddie and Rosie are still playing with Matt Hodek & The Dakota Dutchmen out of Park River, North Dakota. They will be performing along with SqueezeBox at the Minnesota Polka Lovers Klub of America Music Fest on Aug. 4.
SAX MAN IS BORN
Around the time Kelsey was born, Myron passed away and his saxophone was bequeathed to the Lien family. Kelsey’s family moved to the San Antonio area in the mid-1980s where all types of music could be heard on the radio. At home, besides the radio, there was always the piano, and later one of Kelsey's younger brothers took to the drums and one to the guitar. His family had all learned music by ear, so when he was 11 years old (6th grade), he started playing in the school band using his grandfather's saxophone and learned to read the notes he had been playing.
In 8th grade, his Uncle David, (his dad’s brother) gave him a trumpet that he had used in high school which inspired him to learn it. Realizing that music would be his career path, he began taking private saxophone lessons. His teacher saw the multi-instrumentalist in him and bequeathed Kelsey a clarinet, which he learned to play as well.
All through middle school and high school his mom would teach him to play songs she learned as a kid: polkas and other happy music. She had often sat in and played piano with her father’s band, the Myron Pecka Orchestra. At Smithson Valley High School (north of San Antonio, over 2000 students), Kelsey made the Texas All-State Band as a saxophonist. Smithson Valley’s 180-member high school marching band played each year at the annual Wurstfest in New Braunfels which was a treat for him.
In his college years, Kelsey harvested a Bachelor of Music Degree in instrumental music education from University of Texas at San Antonio, and a Master of Music Degree in Instrumental Wind Conducting from Texas State University in San Marcos. In a welcome coincidence, North Dakota State University offered a graduate study in Saxophone Performance.
So, Kelsey headed back to his homeland for a year of reconnecting with his family, learning, and playing music along with getting his first real taste of getting paid to play what he loved. In addition to classroom learning he has picked up decent skills on many instruments from a variety of people from which he fashions his own music.
With his credentials he has taught public school music, band, and orchestra at the elementary, middle school, and high school levels in Texas for the past 11 years. This fall he will be the Director of Bands for the freshly built Danville Middle School near Selma.
POLKA RINGS TRUE
Throughout his immersion in the teaching and playing of classical orchestral music, the sound of that polka music coming from one of his mother’s 8-tracks kept surfacing in his thoughts and he began learning the sounds of different polkas. A person would think that living between San Antonio and New Braunfels it would be easy to see and hear Texas polka bands. Sadly, that is not the case, as few of the area halls offer polka occasionally, but it is a hit-and-miss deal trying to catch a polka band. There is one exception however, Wurstfest.
Wurstfest is the time when a whole herd of polka bands visit Kelsey’s backyard and he attends every year, rain or shine, hot or cold to hear touring groups and meet people in the business. Kelsey also heads up I-35 to Westfest when his schedule permits. Along the way, he has met up with Alex Meixner and has been following his exploits.
What caught Kelsey's eye was Alex giving seminars in various schools. Being band director has its perks and without any hassle from administration he was able to bring Alex to his school to spend a day with his students. With Alex’s tried-and-true program, he spent time giving examples of other types of music that the accordion is capable of producing, and with Alex’s youthful energy, the kids were mesmerized the whole time.
Alex commented after seeing Kelsey’s band program: “Kelsey is one of the most sincere people I know in the music education field - always willing to share his passion for music with his students, as well as his many friends. I have had the pleasure of witnessing first hand his program and look forward to working with him and his school again in the near future."
Kelsey commented: “I was blown away [by Alex’s program] and it was one of those life-changing moments.” Kelsey was infected with the accordion bug.
Another pleasant coincidence or divine intervention occurred a few weeks after Alex gave his demonstration. Kelsey and his wife were in a local music store, and he saw a used piano accordion for sale. He bought it and hasn't looked back since. He transferred his skills to accordion, and now as his internet posts demonstrate, he has his own one-man band.
Kelsey married a Texas girl, Shawna, and they have a five-year-old daughter, Tabitha. Shawna is also a band director, and Tabitha loves to sing, so it is a very musical household. Between their schedules and raising a child there has been little time to explore the Texas polka scene that doesn’t make it to Wurstfest.
Through the magic of the internet Kelsey listens to Alex Meixner, Molly B, Jimmy Sturr, The Chardon Polka Band, Myron Floren, Frankie Yankovic, Western Senators, Walter Ostanek, Matt Hodek and the Dakota Dutchmen, Hank Guzevich and The Polka Family Band, and of course the Myron Pecka Band. He is also listening to some Texas bands via YouTube as he expands his polka set list.
As Kelsey says: “Gotta love those kolaches. I've been experimenting with trying to make my own recently. My success with that has been mediocre.” He finds Texas kolaches interesting as they are open-faced, where his family had made them closed face.
As with most music teachers, after a full day of working with youngsters trying to figure out their instruments and how to play at the proper time; Kelsey just wants to kick back, playing and sharing music for fun. As with family obligations and little opportunity to perform he has chosen as an outlet to post on Facebook and/ or YouTube: “songs that I've liked to listen to and have bothered to learn/ arrange/record. I do it because I love to play. I post it because I know others enjoy this kind of music also. To me, it's happy music, and it makes people happy. It also brings fond memories. I get lots of those comments on Facebook of my music stirring up happy memories. That makes me feel good. I don't currently have, or play in, a polka band. I'd like to, but the right opportunity hasn't presented itself yet. For now, I'll keep on posting recordings for my own pleasure, and for others to enjoy.”
Kelsey’s reputation is spreading as he has been asked (and accepted) to perform on saxophone the national anthem at several San Antonio Spurs games as well as other high-profile events in the area. There is a wonderful video on YouTube issued by the Spurs, of Kelsey with Marine Color Guard standing in the middle of the ATT arena performing the national anthem solo followed by thunderous applause.
In case you missed his performances on Polka Beat you can visit his YouTube channel (Kelsey J. Lien) to hear his self-accompanied songs such as the Hopeless Polka, Apples Peaches, Pumkin Pie Polka, (Willie’s) Pretty Paper, Waltz Across Texas, and the Corn Cockle Polka among others. On Facebook, Kelsey has two pages - SaxMusic-Kelsey J. Lien, and the other: Manaccordionist-Kelsey J. Lien where he posts his fun music.
May Kelsey keep on teaching and inspiring the up-and-coming musicians for years to come.