South Charlotte

This piano man touches hospital crowd

If you have ever found yourself at Presbyterian Hospital Matthews on a Monday or Thursday afternoon, you likely have heard William "Bill" Branner playing the piano.

Branner, 79, is a volunteer who shares his immense musical talent with hospital visitors.

Many people pass through the lobby where Branner plays. His playing is enjoyed by those on their way to doctor's appointments, those who have business at the hospital and employees alike.

Even those in the second-floor surgical waiting room are calmed by Branner's playing, which carries upstairs.

Branner and Christine, 72, his wife of 52 years, are the proud parents of four children and the grandparents of 10, and they consider family the cornerstone of their lives. The couple live near Charlotte Christian School, bordering the Lansdowne neighborhood.

Branner served in the military, then went on to have a very successful career in the insurance industry. He spent 38 years as a claims superintendent with State Farm before retiring in 1998.

It was at his wife's suggestion that Branner volunteered to play at Presbyterian. She heard other pianists at Presbyterian Hospital Charlotte uptown and knew Bill would be great.

Although not initially enthusiastic about the idea, he came around after some gentle persistence from Christine. Her instincts were right, and the playing has become a treasured part of Bill Branner's life.

For several years he played both in Charlotte and Matthews. At some point the piano was moved to a different area not conducive for playing or listening at the uptown location, so for the past three years Branner has played exclusively in Matthews.

His musical education started when he was 15 and his older sister bought a piano. She started taking lessons but did not take to it.

The piano did not go to waste, however; Bill immediately felt drawn to it. He found a chart in the piano bench that helped him learn which keys and notes corresponded, and he started buying sheet music - classical works at first - and taught himself how to play, practicing as many as six hours a day.

Branner possesses the innate ability to learn an endless array of songs. Classical was most challenging in its complexity, but he learned to skillfully play many works of the great composers, including Beethoven and Chopin.

Although he can read sheet music, Branner does not use it; he plays primarily by ear.

"If I can hear it, I can play it," said Branner.

He keeps a list in his wallet of all the songs he plays, grouped by different genres. In addition to classical, he plays hymns, country, gospel, popular and seasonal music.

In all, Branner knows about 300 works.

Music is not the only self-taught talent Branner possesses. Adorning the walls of the Branner home is Bill's artwork. He also is a gifted painter. Bill considers painting, as well as piano playing, to be a hobby.

His talent comes so naturally that he does not quite understand why people think his playing is such a big deal.

"I just pray every morning that my playing lets me touch somebody," said Branner.

According to Chris Pernot, volunteer programs coordinator for Presbyterian Hospital Matthews, "Bill's music brings comfort, joy and smiles to many, which is so important in a hospital setting.

"We are so grateful for Bill's years of dedicated service to Presbyterian Hospital Matthews. He is a delight."

As people pass through the lobby, they seem drawn to Branner's music.

They may stand in place and listen for a while or they might take a seat to enjoy the music.

Some hum along, while others tap their feet or mouth the words. Listeners often will close their eyes as they are transported from the worries of their day.

Visitors frequently make requests. When this happens, it takes Branner barely a second to call up the song from memory and start playing. The joy is obvious on peoples' faces when he plays something they wanted to hear.

Other people leave notes on the piano, telling Branner how his playing has brightened their day or cheered them up. One day, after playing a hymn, an elderly women with a walker worked her way over to the piano and told him, "I needed that," and then proceeded to put two rolled up dollars into his coke can, mistaking it for a tip jar.

Presbyterian has other piano players on different days who also graciously give of their time. Branner usually plays Mondays and Thursdays from 12-3 p.m.

If you're in the area, stop by to listen for a few minutes and say hello. You will not be disappointed.