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A Piano Novice Strikes Just the Right Chord

Dewberry's fingers tickle the ivories during his piano lessons, helping him achieve a lifelong goal of learning to play.
Dewberry's fingers tickle the ivories during his piano lessons, helping him achieve a lifelong goal of learning to play. "Tickled to death" is how the university benefactor and Northern Virginia businessman describes himself after helping to raise money to purchase the Steinways. (Susan Biddle - Twp)

Some older students grow restless after one year, Monson said, but not Dewberry. Dewberry credits his focus to Monson, whose boisterous laugh and gushing praise for her students echo through the GMU practice rooms.

"I wanted to prove when I got into piano that an old person can do something as hard as this," Dewberry said. "I would have given up a long time ago if it wasn't for her."

Along the way, Monson suggested that Dewberry buy a Steinway. "You can afford it," Dewberry said she told him.

So he plunked down $45,000 and put the piano in a soundproofed "secret office" on the top floor of the Dewberry headquarters on Arlington Boulevard in Fairfax.

The two meet for a couple of hours every few weeks, when Dewberry feels "ready." He totes a notebook in which he indexes the pieces he has learned and Monson writes down what he should practice for the next lesson.

On a recent Thursday, Dewberry unlocked the door to his secret office, revealing a cozy space decorated with mahogany-hued leather furniture and a long wooden desk topped by a little golden piano ornament, given to Dewberry by his teacher. He sat at the piano and played two familiar pieces -- Beethoven's Bagatelle in A Minor and an arrangement of the finale of the Ninth Symphony, better known as "Fur Elise" and "Ode to Joy" -- by heart.

"I'm a real amateur," he said apologetically after he finished.

Some time back, over the course of their lessons, Monson mentioned to Dewberry her wish to make GMU an "all-Steinway" school. In December, Dewberry told her he wanted to make it happen.

To earn the official designation from the company, Monson learned, 90 percent of GMU's pianos would have to be Steinways. That meant 16 pianos. Factoring in discounts for being a school and buying in bulk, they would cost about $800,000.

To a man with friends in high places -- Dewberry chaired GMU's capital campaign from 1998 to 2005, raising $142 million -- that did not seem an unattainable goal.

"So I volunteered to see if I couldn't raise half of that money from just a few friends that I know," Dewberry said. "So I did that."

The university matched the donations, and soon Monson -- accompanied by colleagues and Newberry -- was selecting Steinways at a College Park piano store.

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