House fire ends 51-year career of beloved piano teacher
She walked the way she talked—to the point.
She stood tall at 4’9” as she waddled through the Humanities’ music hallway to her office, her scarf wrapped like an eighth note around her neck.
Her fingers were as strong as her will from 70 years of striking black and white keys for three hours a day when she wasn’t teaching one of her 30 students that week.
She asked students trick questions and requested they named the three flats in A flat minor (there are four).
When she talked about music, her voice got a bit higher and the tempo of her voice started moving faster, like a metronome moving at ever-faster beats per minute.
Before your lesson, you’d see cats and dogs on the door of her studio, speaking thought bubbles of musical encouragement.
She was the piano teacher.
Margaret “Solveig” Steen died at 77 years old last Friday in a fire accident in her home.
Kelly Steen, the wife of Solveig’s nephew, Mike, said that Solveig went to bed early, about 9 p.m.
Early Friday morning, her 6-month-old refrigerator burst into flames, traveling from the floor up to the walls before filling the hallway of her home with carbon monoxide, which put her into a sleeping coma, Kelly said, before Solveig “slept her way into heaven.”
Born Jan. 9, 1936, in Sioux Falls, Solveig obtained her bachelor’s in music education in 1957 at Augustana after studying under longtime professor of piano J. Earl Lee. After receipt of her master’s degree in music-piano performance from the University of Michigan, she returned to Sioux Falls and served Augustana as adjunct professor of piano.
Solveig lived in the home where she grew up, just a few blocks from campus. She walked every day to her other home for 51 years, the music hallway, where she held lessons in her studio.
“This has been her home—where she’s poured her life out in students and it shows all over the place,” said music department chair Scott Johnson.
Friends, family and past and present piano students gathered at 4 p.m. Tuesday in the Augustana Chapel of Reconciliation to celebrate Solveig, who had planned on retiring this spring.
“She loved music,” said Augustana accompanist Deanna Wehrspann. “That seems so trite, but it’s true. Love is a strong word, and it was a strong love. That came out in her playing.”
Since most remember her for making music, Solveig’s departure inspired sound for some but left many speechless, said campus pastor Paul Rohde in his sermon, “Music and Silence.”
“One [reaction] was effusive, enthusiastic love and appreciation for Solveig, for her music, and her teaching…the other was stunned silence at the tragedy of her death. We are stunned that a person so alive died such a tragic death.”
Students Sonora Ruybal (cello), Kari Haugen, Spencer Kruse, and Christian Einertson (pianists) played three pieces by J.S. Bach, a favorite composer of Solveig’s.
During the Thursday ice storm, a day before the fire, Einertson, a freshman music major, created a vocal and piano arrangement for a Norwegian psalm he and Solveig loved.
“She never got to hear it, but she heard it today,” Einertson said after he sang Lær Meg Å Kjenne, or “Make me to know,” a psalm of a Norwegian fisherman who returned home from pilgrimage to find his home burned and family dead.
“It’s a psalm of trust after tragedy,” Einertson said. “During the singing of it, I thought about trusting in God even through tragedy and the great love of God that I’m sure Solveig is seeing right now.”
She was quirky, wore bright colors and wrote notes to everyone, including colleague Scott Johnson who smiles when he thinks about Solveig and her love for people and life.
“She was somebody who cared about people,” Johnson said. “I can’t help but smile when I think of Solveig. If she was here right now, she’d probably be grinning.”
After Johnson recited Psalm 30, director of keyboard activities Rick Andrews and instructor Marilyn Schempp played the same duet they had at Solveig’s final recital.
At the recital, they had seated her on the stage and played the piece for her. At the service Tuesday, the duo played Edvard Grieg’s “Solveig’s Song” one more time. Andrews said he thinks Solveig was seated beside the piano once again, listening to the song that bore her name and embodied her culture.
“It’s a very Norwegian song,” Andrews said. “The character of the piece has a little Norwegian dance section – it is just so Solveig.”
After the service, Kelly Steen shared that Solveig wasn’t sure what she would have done after retirement. Perhaps that’s why Solveig is still playing, in their minds or through her students.
“When we have a quiet moment, if we listen, there’s music playing,” Kelly said. “And we know it’s her. We’ve heard a piano playing numerous times since Friday, so we have that comfort.”
But at Augustana, she’ll live on through the lives she touched.
“She helped me get to know the music beyond what’s written on the page and feel the music with me,” said sophomore Sonora Ruybal, reflecting on her last piano lesson with Solveig. “It was a good lesson.”
For Andrews, who knew her for 19 years, Solveig will remain in the music hallway, along with the likes of her former teacher and colleague, J. Earl Lee.
“Whenever you close your eyes and you see Augustana, you see these people, even though you have not met them. I think Solveig’s going to live on in that way.”