Goodbye, Old Friend

I don’t exactly know when we first got our piano. I remember my mom asking me if I thought I might like to take piano lessons someday. She said her parents were offering to buy one for us if we were interested. My grandmother Loretta came from a very musical family, and my grandfather, Alfred Hanser,  would have given us anything in the world we wanted. My sister began lessons soon after the piano arrived, and I started a few years later. I was in second grade.

My teacher was Mrs. Ullman, who had been a friend of my mom’s in college. I had trouble practicing, and Mom would pull up a chair next to the the piano and help me. She’d taken lessons and could read music. If something I played didn’t “sound right”, she’d  to help me figure out what I was doing wrong and correct it. Parents take note: Mom sitting there,  listening to me practice, spoke volumes about the importance of what I was doing.

After a few years, I switched piano teachers to someone on my street, so I could walk to lessons. She introduced me to the John Thompson Method. It is still around today. Billy Joel talks about having to take lessons with that book, and he found it so boring that he began making up his own music! So I suppose in some perverse way one could call it inspiring.

My next teacher was Mrs. Sharfe. She lived near my elementary school. I would walk to her house after school for lessons. We continued with John Thompson, but she also assigned me pieces that were more fun and let me choose some that were popular at the time.  She also began teaching me to play scales, some music theory, and helped me earn my music badge for Girl Scouts.

Throughout elementary school, many of the other students were unkind to me because I was so horrible at athletics. I was always the last to be picked for a team, and the kids would call me “fat”, and some not-nice names that rhymed with Hurd. But I was told that everyone has gifts and they are different for each person,  so I figured my gift was music. I began the clarinet at the end of 6th grade. In 7th grade, I started making friends that were also involved in music. It was a wonderful change for me.

Mrs. Sharfe moved, and I was in need of a teacher. Our new priest at the Episcopal Church had a beautiful wife who taught piano lessons. I had to AUDITION to see if she would be willing to teach me. That was a scary thought, but she was so nice, and she wanted to teach me. Nancy Winterrowd was a wonderful teacher, and now that I was in high school, we had the kind of great relationship that a music teacher and student can develop over time.  She had studied at Eastman, and in Italy, and she played so beautifully. She gave me challenging repertoire to study written by real composers, told me interesting things about their lives, and insisted that I learn how to play all the major and minor scales. She also taught me a few tricks about sight-reading and accompanying that I would later need to know as a choral teacher and director of musicals.

Our piano was still in the same house in the same place in our living room. However, I was beginning to favor the clarinet. I was attending a high school with a fabulous music program; there were so many rehearsals and activities related to band, and I had a great group of friends as a result, so sitting at the piano by myself was not high on my list of priorities. Mom would bribe me: if I practiced piano after dinner, I didn’t have to do the dishes. Even so, I was woefully unprepared for lessons, and they were not much fun for either Mrs. Winterrowd or myself. But Mom said I should continue lessons because I would probably be sorry someday if I quit. Kids, take note: parents usually give good advice.

When Frank and I were married, the reception was in my parents’ home. We asked Frank’s brother Dan to sing and play piano during the reception. It was a beautiful day, and his music meant a lot to us.

Somewhere along the way, I had decided to be a music teacher. My major instrument would be clarinet, and I would train to be an instrumental teacher. My piano knowledge helped me throughout music school, of course, and in my first teaching job after college, at Cobleskill Central School, a few people began asking if I taught private piano lessons. So I traveled to their homes to teach lessons, or we met in a church where there was a piano.

When I expecting for the first time, we realized it would be so much easier for me to give lessons if we had a piano in my home. My parents and sister agreed that we could have the piano. Christopher was born a few days before Christmas, so when my parents drove up to see us after his birth, they brought the piano. But I was in the hospital and did not know they had brought it. So when I brought my newborn son home, there was my piano to greet us! I later heard (many times over the years) of the harrowing trip with the piano in a U-Haul, the car that broke down on the way, and the mechanic with the Christmas spirit.

When the boys were little, sometimes Frank and I would play music for them at bedtime. We would play Disney songs together, he on euphonium or trombone, and I on the piano. I had taught countless lessons on that piano, but Christopher had no interest in taking lessons. Ditto for Jonathan. Nathan wanted to take lessons, but he wanted to learn HIS way, not the way I wanted to teach. (I’ve learned so much about music teaching since then…) But, they began experimenting on that piano, asked a couple of questions, and used what they learned from their lessons at school on their band instruments. The Lord saw fit to gift them with amazing talent. Today, they can all do so much more that I ever did on the piano. I will refrain from bragging about my kids; suffice it so say that I am both humbled by and proud of their musical abilities and accomplishments.

I loved hearing them each of them play piano. I would be in the kitchen, and one of my sons would be playing and singing a Broadway song, or a praise song, or experimenting with chord progressions. If  my work in the kitchen was finished, I would pretend to be working to make the serenade last longer. I knew if I sat down to listen, he would stop.

I played the piano to prepare to play for worship services, or to prepare for choir rehearsals. When I was alone in the house, I would play and sing praise songs and hymns to God.

I didn’t think about it much, but I now realize that piano was my connection to all that is precious to me: my heritage, my parents, my childhood home, my husband, my kids, my vocation, and my God.

After the flood, Jonathan went to the house while we were still in Mississippi. He found the piano laying on its back, covered with mud. He and his friends set it upright before I would walk through the house, but there was no way to remove the mud or repair the damage. It was heartbreaking to see it in that condition, and a few days later, to see a big, ugly, impersonal crane that would just scoop it up with so many other muddied possessions and dump into the back of a truck. As I write this, twenty days after Irene, I can’t stop the tears when I think of the loss of my piano. Jonathan removed all the keys, and he and Kate have cleaned them, in the hopes that someone somewhere can help us make the keys into some sort of wall hanging or memento for each one who learned to play on that piano. My dear friend was murdered and then tossed aside without a proper burial, but I hope we will be able to at least have a suitable memorial for such an important part of all of our lives. Rest in peace, Old Friend.