Friday, May 3, 2013

Learning to Play the Piano

When I was in third or fourth grade at Lisbon Elementary in Dallas, the school offered group piano lessons for a small price to those children who were interested. A small group of us would be taken into a small room where we received pieces of cardboard that looked like piano keys. We learned how to position our fingers on the cardboard piano and were taught a little about reading music. The teacher talked to us about playing the piano, and each of us were allowed to play a bit on the one piano there, but there was no piano at home and no way for me to practice.

I took my "cardboard piano" home and put in on an old apple crate and practiced, moving my fingers up and down on the imitation keys as I sang. The teachers said this would help us learn how to use our fingers correctly. I pretended it was a real piano, and made my little brother sit and listen.

After a while, my mother could tell I was not learning much, so she found me a teacher. By then, we were going to church and our pastor's wife, Mrs. Nelson, gave me my first lessons. She observed that I was learning to play "by ear" and was not learning the notes. She told mother to stand next to me as I practiced and hold a piece of paper over my hands so I could not see the piano keys. She said this would make me learn to read the notes as I relied on the printed music instead of my ears. Mother would stand for a half hour or more, holding the paper over my hands as I practiced.

A happy girl playing the piano (not me)
 My mother and grandmother bought a piano for me, an old upright that was very heavy. I liked to practice and loved learning to play the piano. Sometimes when they cleaned the house they would move that heavy piano across the room, grunting and pushing, and talking a mile a minute as they rearranged the furniture. My grandmother, whom I called Mama, loved to listen to me. She always wanted me to play and sing "The Tennessee Waltz" since that was the part of the country where she had grown up.

I quickly learned that if I said I had to practice the piano, I could get out of doing the dishes after dinner. Mama would say, "You go and practice, Juanita. I'll do the dishes for you and listen to you play."

She enjoyed it, but my grandfather, Papa, was not so understanding. He would sit in his chair after dinner, rustle his newspaper, and complain, "Can't that kid do anything but bang on the piano? A man comes home tired and wants to read the paper and all he can hear is that kid beating on that piano!" I don't remember him calling me anything other than "that kid." We lived in the same house with my grandparents for as long as I was at home.

At church, I listened and watched the pastor's daughter, Louise Oliver, play the piano for services. She added chords, embellishments, and extra notes. I listened carefully, then went home and tried to recall what she had done. I worked hard, trying to play the hymn just as Louise did, until I got it right. I thought that if I could be as good as Louise, I would be set for life! About that time, at age eleven or so, God began to tell me that I would grow up to marry a preacher. I thought preachers' wives needed to know how to play the piano, so I worked even harder to get ready for my life's work.

I was about twelve when Louise began asking me to play the piano occasionally on Sunday evenings. She gave me a chance to learn how to be a church pianist by stepping aside and letting me play. Many times I would worry because I knew I had hit a wrong note, but most people didn't even notice. I have been in a lot of places, and I have never seen another church pianist so willing to let a young person learn as Louise did. Many church musicians are territorial, very protective of their jobs, but this dear lady was a caring person who was willing to step aside and let a little girl learn.

When I was sixteen I came home from school and found that same piano, but it had been cut down and modernized. A huge red ribbon was tied around it, and a decorative mirror and shelf went all the way across the front. I played that piano unto the 1970s. After I married, I took it with me to my first home, and it was moved several times. My husband can attest to the fact that it was extremely heavy. 

I taught piano lessons with that piano and I taught our oldest son, Steve, to play, beginning when he was five years old and could read the letters A to G. He is now a professional pianist, living in Cologne, Germany, and helping to make his living by playing concerts and accompanying singers.

This beautiful piano is much prettier and shinier than the one I had.
I tried to teach our other children to play the piano, but they didn't want to practice, so rather than fight battles, I stopped  teaching them. Both my girls are now music teachers and have learned to play the piano on their own.

The piano has been a source of comfort to me. I enjoy playing, yet I do not do it every day as I did in past years. I have played for many churches, and I taught other pastor's wives to play. I am so glad I had the opportunity to learn.

These are memories from my childhood. You can write your memories just as I did. I hope you will give it a try, if you really want to do it.

You still have time to comment on Bette Lee Crosby's interview and get your name into the drawing to win her book, What Matters Most. This book is about a woman whose husband wants to retire and move to Florida while she wants to stay in her home and continue quilting with her friends in a Northern state.

Go to the bottom of this post and ask for "earlier posts" or go to the sidebar and click on Meet Author Bette Lee Crosby to read the interview.

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