Piano man loves to teach

Eric Van James, a pianist at Nordstrom plays "Ain't Misbehav'n" Sunday afternoon at the Hillsdale Shopping Center in San Mateo. Van James performs for guests on the second floor in the women's department every Sunday from noon to 4 p.m.

Eric Van James, 53, is a rarity in the world of the salesman — he works as a haberdasher for the Nordstrom men’s department, and also plays the piano for them Sundays from noon -4 p.m.

According to Blake Nordstrom, one of the presidents of the store, Van James is the only Nordstrom employee to also play piano there. He accepted a sales job after he began playing piano at the store’s Hillsdale Shopping Center location in San Mateo.

"The reason why I took the sales job is that I wasn’t teaching at the moment,” says Van James, who has his bachelor’s in music and a master’s in education from San Francisco State University. "And so the holidays were coming up. I thought it would be good timing.”

This sales job deviated slightly from his normal line of work. Van James actually studied music intensely, starting in high school. He earned his associate in arts degree from Diablo Valley College, and he also studied music composition at Cal State Hayward before transferring to San Francisco State University.

"I love to teach, I love to perform and I love playing the piano,” he says, "I also arrange music. I love music in so many different ways, it’s hard to say which I’d rather be doing.”

The first thing he did was teach. He started at the downtown Berkeley YMCA in 2001 and developed a program called Music Skills for Children, for 5 to 8-year-olds. He also began conducting, despite never being trained, working with both the Choral Singers of Marin and a youth ensemble called The Starlights.

Van James has, and continues to, work as a freelance piano player. He performs solo, joins a group of musicians or accompanies a choir at a variety of venues both public and private.

But he never expected to be playing Elton John, the Beatles and a wide variety of other pop music tunes at Nordstrom.

"What I didn’t know was how my musical career would evolve over the years,” Van James said. "If you had told me 10 years ago that I would be a conductor for two choral organizations, I’d have said you’re crazy!”

His adoration for the piano began at a young age. He remembered a girl in his fourth grade class who sparked his interest.

"There was this girl, Jackie Fisher, and she was blind,” he explains. "In those days it wasn’t uncommon to have a piano in the classroom, but Jackie sat down and played the piano. And played marvelously. And she was blind, so it really just blew me away. I never forgot that, and I think that was my inspiration to play and study the piano.”

What Van James really wanted out of a musical career is to be a recording artist, the kind that made it on the radio, singing, performing and putting out slick new records every year.

"I still have that desire,” Van James said. "But you know, as you get older, your priorities change and you have to modify your life and your thinking. But I don’t rule that out.”

Van James plans to record a new album in the next year. He is one of three piano players to perform at Nordstrom each week.

The others are Rich Kelso, who plays on Saturdays, and Jeanne Walpole, who plays on Fridays.

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