Pianist Relearns Craft After Losing Fingers
Jim Radloff started Leap Day in 2012 as many others in the area did — getting rid of the heavy snow that had accumulated in his driveway.
Using his snow blower proved unsuccessful, as the wet and slushy substance of the snow clogged the discharge chute.
“I thought, ‘This is ridiculous. I’ll just take it back in; the snow will melt anyway,’” Radloff said.
But then the Eau Claire pianist, who will perform at the Winona Dixieland Jazz Festival this weekend, tried to unclog the chute — and got his right glove string caught in the blower.
He heard a crunch, and thought it must have been a rock. When he pulled out his right hand, he saw his glove was gone and blood covered three of his fingers.
He ran toward his house to alert his wife and get help.
“I thought, ‘I’m never going to play the piano again, this is the dumbest thing I’ve ever done,’” Radloff said. By the time the ambulance arrived Radloff had already been forced to realize that his ability to perform was changed forever.
Radloff has been playing music for as long as he can remember. He would try to play along with commercials and jingles he heard on the TV and radio.
“My mother always said that I started playing something when I was three years old,” he said.
Radloff took piano lessons when he was 9 and 10, then quit for a time to learn to play alto and tenor saxophones. He continued to pursue music as a hobby in college but not as a career, earning an undergraduate degree in correctional administration and a master’s degree in social work.
He continued playing piano throughout his adult life. He mostly never learned to read music, relying on his ability to listen closely to a tune and replicate it on the piano.
“About 90 percent of what I do is ear-trained,” Radloff said.
He has more than 1,000 songs stored in his repertoire, mostly Dixieland swing and jazz tunes popular long ago for solo piano players.
“You don’t dare call it ragtime but that’s what it is,” Radloff said.
Doctors weren’t able to re-attach Radloff’s fingers, and instead shortened them so they would heal.
Almost instantly, Radloff began to teach himself how to play again without the full use of his right hand — the one pianists primarily use for playing melodies and improvised solos.
“I have my thumb and little finger and the others are, how shall I put it, retired from striking piano keys,” he said.
He soon returned to performing publicly, and has since kept up a rigorous schedule. He said he’s performed in all 50 states and every one of Wisconsin’s counties, including at least seven after his accident.
He’s also figured out how to use other machines with his limitations, like the lawnmower. But he doesn’t touch the snow blower any more.
“My wife retired me from some machinery,” Radloff joked.
Radloff is still learning to play again, he said, and he’ll never be able to perform the way he could before the accident.
“I’m still learning. I have to relearn stuff that I used to do. There’s some things I can’t do and never will,” he said.
But that’s OK, he said. Throughout, Radloff has maintained a positive attitude.
“It doesn’t help to sit around and mope about the loss. Work with what you have and do your best on that,” he said.
“That’s my attitude.”