Livestreaming piano music on Facebook from his house in small-town Salem County, Kahlil Gunther is reclaiming Saturday night from the boredom and isolation of quarantine.
A Woodstown High School choral-music teacher widely recognized for the dinnertime gigs he’s played at Peter Shields Inn & Restaurant in Cape May for more than 20 years, Gunther, 47, has taken his act off the road.
From 6 to 7 p.m. for the last two Saturdays, the socially distant piano man has offered wildly disparate set lists — including the Beatles followed by Andrew Lloyd Weber followed by Nirvana, with Metallica and Gershwin on deck. He plans to do it for the foreseeable future.
Coaxing emotion and whimsy from his Kawai baby grand, Gunther is mindful of the tension of the times, using music as a balm in the absence of a vaccine. And he takes online requests.
“I’m not creating high art,” said Gunther, a married father of five and a classically trained pianist with a master’s degree in music education from the University of the Arts. “But I’m aware of the connection people feel with certain songs, how it links them to family, friends, and special times in their lives.”
One of his listeners recently requested “Bridge Over Troubled Water” to be dedicated to “first responders, doctors, nurses, grocery workers, etc. who are keeping our world going.”
Much of the world for Gunther centers on tiny Woodstown, settled around 1720, a walk-and-wave sort of place with a population of about 3,400 — many of whom are related or friends from homeroom 25 years ago. A few live in historic houses that through the years sheltered families that fought the British, the Confederate Army, Hitler, and now this scourge.
“Kahlil brings a high level of music to a rural area where you might not expect that,” said Misty Fiske, 42, a music teacher in adjacent Cumberland County who did her student teaching with Gunther. “Salem and Cumberland are vast, without many people. They’re not what you think of when you know New Jersey is the most densely populated state in America.
"People think of Cherry Hill as being South Jersey. Well, these counties are 45 minutes south of there. They’re in extreme South Jersey, disconnected from the rest.”
That may be helping Salem County, thus far a relative sanctuary from disease. Until last week, it had been the only one of New Jersey’s 21 counties with no reported cases of coronavirus. As of Wednesday, it had 19, with a single death, the lowest county total in a state with more than 25,000 confirmed cases.
“We have these numbers because there’s a lot of distance between the 64,000 people who live here, the least populous New Jersey county,” said Stacy Pennington, deputy county administrator. “We are already socially distanced.”
Salem County’s rurality attracts people who crave a hinterlands feel, like former North Dakota resident Carson Wentz, the Eagles quarterback, who bought a house just outside Woodstown. Featuring an inch-high, too-green-to-seem-real crop that stretches for about 1,000 acres, East Coast Sod & Seeds Inc. in nearby Pilesgrove grows the grass traipsed on by cleated millionaires who (normally) play baseball at Yankee Stadium. Just up the road is the Cowtown Rodeo, the longest running weekly rodeo in the United States, typically open from May to September.
Gunther, who grew up in Cape May Court House, has long loved the agricultural feel that surrounds his adopted town. The musical director of the Salem County Community College Oak Singers, Gunther was until recently the clerk of the Woodstown Friends Meeting.
“When you live in a small town and are part of a church community,” Gunther said, “you feel as though you want to do things that aren’t just meaningful for yourself, but for other people. That’s why I decided on the concert series.”
Gunther’s Facebook playing is “definitely a calming thing,” said Amy Gotthardt, dining room manager at Peter Shields. “It provides a sense of normalcy, and is really nice at a time when things are very crazy.”
Gunther doesn’t sing or engage in much between-song patter. “He has a very humble energy about him, even though he’s super, super talented,” Gotthardt added.
Larry Kulp, owner of the Woodstown Music store, said Gunther’s recitals, which have garnered more than 13,000 views, help adults stuck at home like grounded teenagers feel what it’s like "to be allowed out a Saturday night.”
One of Gunther’s daughters took guitar lessons in Kulp’s shop, which lately features a sign advising, “A new guitar could make the quarantine go quicker.” The store is closed, but Kulp can arrange to fix broken guitars that are dropped off.
Gunther grew up the youngest of five children of a single mother who played piano. His prowess was detected early, and he started music lessons at age 8.
“I always thought it would be a career,” said the bespectacled teacher with a gray beard. “It’s the thing that I do.”
During his childhood, Gunther sometimes accompanied his mother, Shirlianne, a reporter for the Atlantic City Press, on her assignments. He met a stunt man for the Pink Panther movies once. Another time, he showed up with his mom for a midnight drug bust on a boat.
“When I play piano in Cape May, many people tell me they knew my mother from stories she’d written,” Gunther said. She died in 1999.
These days, when he’s not playing, Gunther is posting online assignments for his music classes at the 105-year-old high school, where he’s taught for 25 years. Gunther was planning an online rehearsal for the choir. He predicted technical difficulties that will likely render the exercise “awful and hilarious.”
Gunther and his wife, Tammy, 49, who does billing for a local transportation company, have five children, ages 13 to 23. All have been involved in choirs or bands throughout their lives. Most recently, Sarah, 17, played Cinderella in a high school production for which Gunther served as musical director.
In Woodstown, people show up for every performance Gunther puts on. Such events are staples of entertainment in a small town.
That’s why it’s been hard for Gunther and his students to cancel one concert after another set for the spring. The same is true of his Oak Singers. The coronavirus is silencing an entire community, robbing voices of the chance to be heard, robbing audiences of a modicum of grace and refinement.
Gunther’s livestream has grown to mean so much. “It’s just great to see live, local music during this time,” said Paul Kranz, a communications teacher at Woodstown High School who has played acoustic guitar on Gunther’s online recitals.
As the week drew to a close, Gunther looked forward to the virtual gig. “People tell me they’ll be buying some wine from a local winery, then time their dinner to coincide with my playing,” he said, smiling.
“That’s nice. And when I see them on the street afterward, and they say from six feet or more away from me that they enjoyed me on Facebook, well, that’s fun, too.”