A life of noteworthy successes

Michael Young

Nevada City Advocate

 At an age when most children are barely toddling, Aileen James was playing piano.

Her father loved church hymns and would hoist her up next to him on the piano bench where she would tap out the melodies. She was two years old. 

At three, she could play with both hands. Her mother, who wanted her to do more than just play by ear, signed her up for lessons with a teacher who specialized in pre-school children.

“I guess they call it being a prodigy, but I didn’t think I was different from anyone else,” she says.

Aileen recalls her first recital at age three. 

“It was a Christmas party at the teacher’s home. We all had pieces to play. When it was time for me to play, I just made up a song on the spot. I called it “Little Boy.” Why? I have no idea. I had no brothers.”

She is asked to play it. She hedges a bit, but finally walks over to one of two back-to-back seven-foot Steinway grand pianos in her beautifully appointed Grass Valley home and plays a spirited tune that is obviously more than just a beginner’s lesson.

“No wonder the other kids couldn’t stand me,” she says with a modest smile. “I was one of those precocious little brats.”

It was the beginning of a long career of performance and teaching, moving three children from town to town, to end up here in Nevada County, where she is the High Priestess of Classical Music.

She not only served twice on the InConcert Sierra board of directors, but she also is the organization’s in-house musicologist and pre-concert forum hostess where she “demystifies the world of classical music and makes it more accessible,’ says Julie Hardin, executive director of InConcert Sierra

And from 2010 to 2016, she was host of the popular monthly “Classical Showcase” on KVMR 89.5 Community Radio, the only primetime classical music and talk show in the region.

The foundation for classical music appreciation that she built is about to expand to weekly on Sunday evenings at KVMR with a crew of broadcasters. She will be a special guest on the show on Sunday, Oct. 14, from 5 to 8 p.m.

In so many ways, she has lived a life that prepared her for her duties here.

“I love teaching. I’ve never not loved it.”

When she was eight years old, the family moved to Van Nuys and her mother found Mae Gilbert Reese, a teacher in Hollywood who Aileen studied with until she went to college.

“She never made anyone feel they were better than anyone else,” Aileen says.

“I have emulated that lady all these years. We kept in touch. She did a master class and was still teaching at 77. She lived to be 97 and taught right up to two years before she died.”

Under Reese’s guidance, Aileen made her orchestral debut at age 15 performing Tchaikovsky’s Concerto No.1. She later had stints at the Schubert Institute in Vienna and the Royamount Music Festival in France. She also studied with some of the great teachers in classical music like Julian White from Berkeley and Adolf Ballard from Stanford.

But the crème de la crème came in 1981 when she earned a rare Doctorate in Musical Arts in Performance Practices from Stanford University. It was a fellowship that only took 15 students, and at the time had never taken a pianist. She also was a teaching assistant.

Stanford was the place she met and eventually married Don Traeger, a physician who became the love of her life.

Don was a big opera fan and went to see a performance at the San Francisco Opera with a group that had an extra ticket. She bought it even though it was one of her least favorite operas.

“We went out afterwards, ate and talked for two hours. That was it. He later called and invited me to see Tosca, Pavarotti, 20th row.

“I learned that opera was his hobby but acting was his passion.”

He was involved in Palo Alto community theater and invited her to a dress rehearsal.

They dated for four years and were together for 25 until he died in 2003 after they had moved to Nevada County.

She had earlier gotten a call from Charles Woods and David Osborn, fans of classical music, who had bought the Miners Foundry in Nevada City.

“They loved it up here and said it was the place for me,” she said.

“After we got here, Ken and Julie (Hardin) found me. They said they were losing a key person at InConcert who was very good with students. They took one look at my 15-year history with the American Pianists Association where I was artistic director and said: ‘You’re on the board.’”

She eventually agreed to do the classical show on KVMR.

Her show was always precise and well planned, her delivery flawless. As engineer of her show, I can attest that she never made a mistake in six years.

“When I started, we were still in KVMR’s old building. I loved being next to Miners Foundry,” she said. “I’ve always loved this community. To be part of this is very exciting.”

She also appreciated KVMR’s, shall we say, “eclectic” personality and programming. Her show was followed at 10 p.m. by a program featuring hip-hop and rap music.

“I always told people I’m between Amy Goodman and Road Dog Radio.”

Hers is a life filled with classical music. It’s a love she has passed down to her children,

Her son, Tom, lives in Burlingame is passionate about choral music and owns a telescope business. She also has a daughter, Tamara, who has a degree in gerontology and daughter, Teresa, who has three children.

“Tom once asked why I wasn’t listening to classical music all the time. I said it’s because it’s always on in my head.”

OK, then, but why have two of the most famous and most expensive pianos cheek to jowl in her living room if there’s always music on in her head?

“Because I can.”

About the photo: Previous page

Aileen James stands between the two back-to-back seven-foot Steinway grand pianos in her Grass Valley home.

Photo by Michael Young

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Aileen James at the keyboard.

Photo by Michael Young