When Joel Esten, now of South Orleans, was growing up in Woonsocket, R.I., he “experienced the magic of Christmas” most vividly through music.
Musician Esten, 78, has written improvisations for 13 familiar Christmas carols ranging from “Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel” to “Jingle Bells.” And now, just in time for Christmas, Esten has collected his improvisations in a spiral-bound volume called “Christmas Piano Variations from Cape Cod.” The 53-page volume was beautifully-laid out by Marie Williams of Watermark in Chatham and includes Esten’s improvisations of the past six years. The pieces are geared to an intermediate pianist. Thought was even given to the ring binder itself — it’s small, and made of plastic, so as not to scratch the piano board that it will lean against.
“I can’t think of any other Cape composer who has done anything similar,” Esten says. “It’s a fairly novel publication.”
In addition, Esten has recorded the pieces on MP3 files which he will share upon request.
Esten began his career as a music student and performer at the age of five. His mother signed him up for the junior choir in his town’s Episcopal church and later insisted that he begin piano lessons in the fourth grade. Esten dedicates this current volume to his long-ago teacher, Isabelle Corey, along with his mother, Clara Sibley Esten. It turns out that Clara Esten’s father, Comfort Sibley, was also a “naturally gifted musician.”
Esten earned a B.A. in music from the University of Rhode Island. He later directed church choirs in Connecticut and on Cape Cod, studied voice at the New England Conservatory in Boston, and established a teaching studio in South Orleans.
But, as he puts it, “you could say that I’ve lived two lives” — one was as a corporate person in business, while the other was as a musician.
Esten graduated from college during the Vietnam War era. He had served in ROTC, and when he was in the service he was sent to Fort Campbell, Kentucky. When he was released from the service, he was already married with a baby on the way. He went to work at Pratt and Whitney in Connecticut. The company at that time built both military and commercial engines He worked there as a manager until in 1993 the aerospace industry fell into a major downward trend. When 10,000 were laid off, Esten was among them at the age of 50.
“I left, saying ‘what am I going to do with the rest of my life?’” He ended up moving to the Cape and essentially starting over.
“I had been coming here all of my life for vacations, but I had to figure out what to do here,” he recalls. He had two children in college and a mortgage. It so happened that the entire time he had been working at Pratt and Whitney he had been directing a choir and even studied voice at the New England Conservatory. He had also been composing music “just because I liked composing,” he says. “It was something I learned to do through trial and error.” So, it was a natural shift when, on the Cape, he was hired as a choir director in Yarmouth. Another skill he had was tuning pianos, which he learned from a master piano tuner.
“Acoustic pianos with strings and hammers start to fall out of tune as soon as they’re tuned,” he says. “Most people don’t hear that but I was hearing it.” He soon had piano tuning clients, and then began teaching private students. He designed a custom house and teaching studio in South Orleans, and once it was built, he taught both voice and piano there. He describes himself as a “fairly good soloist tenor,” and he performed in various venues, including First Night Chatham for eight or nine years, which is where he met Williams.
“I was doing anything I could to make a buck, to survive,” he says. His student base grew through word-of-mouth, until he had students from Provincetown on down the Cape. He also traveled to Sandwich to teach in an after-school program for children where he was resident piano and voice teacher for a few years.
He tapered off his teaching load in the early 2000s, and when the pandemic hit, he was down to one serious adult who was studying opera. The pandemic ended that.
“Christmas Piano Variations” is, in a sense, a byproduct of the pandemic, when Esten had more time. “I call my home my COVID cave,” he says, recalling the early months of the pandemic when he didn’t see even his children, now ages 55 and 47, and his five grandchildren. With him in the COVID cave is his partner, whom he refers to in the book as “my dearest Charlotte.”
Esten’s next project will be a book of secular Christmas song arrangements such as “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire.”
“Christmas Piano Variations” is available in Chatham at Where the Sidewalk Ends, 432 Main St., and Yellow Umbrella Books, 501 Main St. It is also available in Harwich Port at Below the Brine Bookshop, 554 Route 28.