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Playing against the odds

Pianist Duke Thompson will be beating the odds when he returns to perform a fundraising classical-pop concert in Red Deer this week.
Being tall was an advantage for Duke Thompson

Pianist Duke Thompson will be beating the odds when he returns to perform a fundraising classical-pop concert in Red Deer this week.

A couple of years ago, Thompson was unsure if he could ever play in public again after a serious car accident left him physically shattered on his left side.

“Doctors were telling me, you might play again, but not the way you used to,” he recalled, “and I didn’t like that. . . .

“I became very depressed because I didn’t know where I would be in future,” admitted Thompson, who will perform on Saturday at the Red Deer Public Library’s Snell Auditorium.

“I was considering other careers, but I didn’t know what I would do if I couldn’t play the piano.”

The former Red Deer College instructor had been returning regularly to perform in Central Alberta since he moved to Maryland in 2001 to open a music conservatory. While at one point he was back here two or three times a year, Thompson hasn’t set foot in Red Deer since 2006.

“I really miss Red Deer and Alberta. I first came here intending to stay for two years and I stayed for 17,” he said, noting he has many connections to this city — including his part ownership of The Vat nightclub.

Of course, the reason Thompson hasn’t returned sooner is the car crash of May 2007.

He was on his way home from a concert that had run later than expected. “I was going too fast,” said Thompson, who was rushing to meet his sister waiting for him at home.

At about 11:30 p.m., his car flew sideways off a gravel road and slammed into a tree.

While Thompson doesn’t remember the crash, doctors later told him his two-metre (six-foot-six) height saved his life. If his head hadn’t been cushioned by the curve of his car’s roof, “it would have snapped through the window and hit the tree and I would have been gone.”

Thompson remained in a coma for two days after being airlifted to the Baltimore Shock Trauma hospital. He had a serious concussion with bleeding on his brain, so physicians were initially putting him through MRI scans every 45 minutes.

Among his injuries were broken ribs and a collapsed lung, but it was his shattered left shoulder that left doctors pessimistic. “They didn’t know how they were going to put my shoulder back together,” said Thompson. After one surgery, he had a plate holding the joint together with seven screws.

The dissatisfied pianist consulted a highly respected specialist in the U.S. at John Hopkins Hospital, and the surgeon — who was more used to dealing with sports injuries among celebrity athletes — agreed to take him as a patient because Thompson’s career was at stake.

“He realized I needed my shoulder for professional reasons and he agreed to do it.”

This second surgery, which entailed removing the plate and screws, was successful.

As soon as Thompson was able to walk and sit upright, about two months after his accident, he returned to piano.

“The doctor told me, ‘Let pain be your guide,’ ” said Thompson, who initially tried keeping his shoulder still by relying on his wrist to reach various piano keys.

His shoulder’s mobility began improving with regular rounds of physical therapy, and by October 2007, Thompson was back to teaching conservatory students and “playing little things.”

In February 2008, he performed his first concert since the accident. “I wasn’t playing 100 per cent flat out, but I had a steep recovery curve,” said Thompson, who credits his supportive friends and family, including his ex-wife and step-daughter, for helping him get through.

He titled the first composition he wrote after the crash Lots to Consider. The slower-paced song, which reflects Thompson’s limited post-surgical abilities, as well as his inner turmoil, is the title track of a new CD. The pianist said it still evokes his complicated feelings about an uncertain future.

Playing the composition “was like therapy,” said the pianist, who’s looking forward to performing it in Red Deer during his first local concert in three years.

Another of his original works, September ’69, will commemorate his father’s earlier death in a traffic accident. “It was eerily similar because his car also slid sideways into a bridge abutment,” said Thompson, who wrote the song to honour his dad, who died at the age of 46 when Thompson was 13.

His benefit concert for the library and the Red Deer Tennis Club (of which he is a former president) features an eclectic program. Thompson also plans to play tunes by Billy Joel, The Who and Andrew Lloyd Webber, as well as concertos by Mozart, Beethoven and Grieg.

“There was a time when I wouldn’t do popular music because I was labelled a classical pianist. But now I think, to heck with all that. I’ll do what I want,” he said with a chuckle.

“I’ll do a bit of classical, a bit of classic rock . . . I’m throwing caution to the wind.”

Thompson’s benefit concert, Oh, What A Piano Can Do, is on at 6 p.m. Saturday at the Snell Auditorium at the downtown Red Deer Public Library. The $40 tickets are available from the branch’s circulation desk. The event features a cash bar with wine and beer and hors d’oeuvres.