OSCODA — Like many of us approaching middle age, Tom Erlenbaugh set a goal for himself. He decided after being gifted a Casio keyboard, and turning 50, he was going to teach himself how to play the piano.
Erlenbaugh’s four older sisters all had lessons as children, but none of them got much past learning how to play chopsticks. Erlenbaugh is the last born in a family of seven children and was born and raised in Indiana. By the time he asked for piano lessons, his parents had given up on any of their children learning the piano and said “no.”
Erlenbaugh came to Oscoda to serve in the air force on the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base. In 1983, he spent three hours per day for an entire year to teach himself to play bass guitar. After leaving the service, he taught himself to play, grew his hair long, and joined a heavy metal band.
“Everyone wanted to be a rock star, be out front, so it was easy to become a bass player,” he said.
Erlenbaugh has played in a number of bands since and over the years has been a member of Grounded, a band he still plays bass guitar with. Having played bass guitar in bands over the course of 30 years he had an ear for music which made it easier to teach himself the piano.
“I have hundreds of songs in the library,” he said, pointing to his head.
Now, at the age of 60 and with a shaved head, Erlenbaugh can be found a few nights of the week playing piano in the bar at Tait’s Bar and Grill on Dwight Street in downtown Oscoda.
Although Bill Tait, the owner of Tait’s, was originally hesitant to let him play, Erlenbaugh has been a regular fixture in the bar for the past five years where he plays for the sheer love of music and tips. He was very excited when Tait’s recently had the piano tuned.
Erlenbaugh takes requests spanning several decades and genres of music. He can play blues, jazz, country, contemporary Christian, easy listening, classic rock and honky tonk.
“Honky tonk hides if a piano is out of tune”, he said. Blues and country music are the easiest to play because to a great extent they rely on three chords,” he said.
Given his 30 years of playing bass guitar, he has been told by classically trained pianists that he plays the piano like a guitar. He only plays songs using the lower octaves. Erlenbaugh describes himself as a “piano hack,,” a “terrible singer” and as having a “tin ear” but having a great sense of rhythm.
Erlenbaugh’s favorite types of music to play on the piano include jazz and the blues. In addition to playing music composed by others, Erlenbaugh has four original songs he has written for the piano. “Flat Bag,” reminds him of a rainy Monday and uses the B-flat, A-flat and G-flat chords. “Nod to the Big Band Era” is reminiscent of big band songs from the 1930s and 1940s. Some of his original compositions remain unnamed.
On Saturday nights Erlenbaugh can be found at the Methodist Church in downtown Oscoda where he plays bass with the Peace Tones. The grand piano at the church is his favorite to play. Erlenbaugh can also be found playing the piano at the Shoreline Theater, the Oscoda Senior Center, the Oscoda Villages Clubhouse, and on occasion the Bavarian Bakery. He appreciates that each piano sounds a little different and fits the music he plays to the sound of the piano.
Erlenbaugh credits Bill Rudolph who conducts the praise band at the Methodist Church with challenging him and helping him to become a better pianist.