I was seven years old when I began taking piano lessons. Too young to know full well the implication that this was my calling (or at least one of them) and too naive to realize that what I learned applied to life.
That’s nigh on fifty years ago. I can’t recall the early years; somehow I just knew how to play.
But, I distinctly remember piano lessons on Mrs. Rogers’ front porch every summer.
Once a week from the first week of June until the end of August, she conducted lessons in her home — a welcome break from my calculated walk down the long, tiled hallway leading to the piano room adjacent to the band room. Trudging was my pace back then, especially when I shirked practice. The minute my fingers hit the keys, Mrs. Rogers could tell how much time I’d put in the week before.
“There’s no faking it. You either did it or you didn’t.”
Yet she was patient… forgiving… encouraging.
A note from 1973…
“It seems no time at all since, as a small child, you came to me to learn more about music. In that short time, how you have grown to become a good musician and a lovely person! Working with you has been a treasured experience for me, and a pleasure and reward, if perhaps I may have helped you on your way to a high degree of musicianship. Affectionately, Edith Rogers, April the fourteenth.”
To this day, I can still hear the delicate, hand-painted glass wind chimes tinkling in the screen window of her front porch, prompted into melody by the slightest breeze… feel the frosty glass of freshly-squeezed lemonade in my hand offered before I took my place on the piano bench in her pale yellow, white-trimmed house… taste the paper-thin sugar cookies with a hint of lemon that she graciously extended on a 1950′s-style hostess tray with a fragile paper napkin, along with an update on her latest knitting project consigned by Saks Fifth Avenue.
Her artistry with knitting needles was as exacting as her piano lessons — proficient enough to supply Saks with sweaters knit to their customers’ specifications.
“Take pride in what you do. Give it your best. You never know who may be blessed by it.”
She was also a gifted painter. Laser precise water colors of botanical specimens… tigers… flora & fauna vaguely reminiscent of Georgia O’Keeffe adorned her walls. Yet, they were rendered softly — with restraint.
“Develop your own style.”
Ironically, her chief concern regarding whether or not I’d become a concert pianist was my inability (or unwillingness) to “narrow down my interests.” That thought still tickles me, considering her diversity.
I also marveled at how her “reach” outdistanced the confines of the rural area where we resided by many, many miles. In her younger years, she attended The McPhail School of Music in Minneapolis. She confided once that she’d been given an assignment to harmonize a familiar melody. After reviewing it, the instructor chided her for breaking every known rule of harmonization. Then he stated, “It’s absolutely beautiful.”
“Rules were meant to be broken, or at least challenged by another perspective.”
Later, she taught at a school for the blind in Boston. Whenever I’d balk at a difficult passage, she’d get out one of her Braille music books and have me run my fingers over it note by note.
“Never let yourself be limited by vision. There are different ways of looking at things. Try again.”
She subsequently married and moved to Minnesota. Acquired a job as an organist at the Catholic church half a block from her home. Became widowed, but continued to play hymns every Sunday and religious holiday in the stifling hot balcony with the aid of a rear-view mirror perched on the organ console. Insisted that I learn how to do the same.
Frankly, during the summer of sixth grade, I was more interested in stealing a kiss from the boy who lived across the street than learning rudimentary pedal techniques. Yet she insisted I learn.
“Who knows? One day you may have to support a family.”
I went on to play for hundreds of weddings and funerals. Became a substitute organist at so many churches I lost count. And I still managed to steal that kiss… my first.
Excerpts from a letter in 1974…
1) Transpose #5, P. 9 “Heller 50 Selected Studies” into the following keys – A Major, E flat Major.
2) Do study #12, P. 20, “Heller Thirty progressive Studies.” Work for a fine Legato with hand position close to keyboard. Pay close attention to phrasing, accents, and dynamics as indicated — always with a firm touch, so there will be clear, beautiful tones.
3) Arpeggio Etude #2, P. 6. Czerny Selected Studies, Bk 111. Flexible wrist to allow easy movement of thumb under the fingers. Divide study into portions as a check for practice and to avoid fatigue.
4) This is your assignment; please give it the respectful consideration which it deserves. Any less is unworthy of you. Never settle for less than your conscientious best… never sell yourself short by a “ho hum” attitude or performance. Whatever profession you eventually follow, do today’s work today. For the rest of your assignment, do some piece of music of your own choosing and do an accurate job — again — your best!
. . .
Mrs. Rogers passed away when I was a junior in high school.
It’s taken me until now to appreciate the blessing that she was and the magnitude of what she taught me.
She was not only my teacher, she was my mentor.
How grateful I am.
Enjoying lessons learned,