Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Magical Moment 27, "Ode to the Piano Teachers"

I began to reflect on all the people in my past whose influence has affected my life to this day. There are probably millions, some I have completely forgotten and some I never knew existed. Some that my pride has wrongly told me had no affect on me whatsoever and some who I sing the highest praises and will remember for a long time. I think about my piano teachers actually quite often, because they were all more than just teachers to me. They were friends and role models. And I’m so grateful at this point in my life that all 3 of them have inspired me in some way.

I started piano lessons with Mrs. Anderson at the age of 6 (I think). Mrs. Anderson had the talent and abilities of a concert pianist. Her sight-reading skills and classically trained fingers could have graced world-wide stages reserved for only the finest talent and she would have been among the best. Of that, I’m positive. Her call in life, however, was to be the devoted wife of a humble pastor and mother of their children. She took on dozens of piano students, using her gift as a service. My parents paid only five dollars a lesson for my sisters and I. That is absolutely astounding, even for back then. Of course I didn’t realize as a child, but my family would never have been able to afford piano lessons for 3 children at a regular price. Her generosity is what allowed me to even begin playing piano in the first place and for that, I am forever grateful.

She is also the teacher who fought and fought to teach me the basics of sight-reading. God bless her. She must have been so frustrated, straining her eyes to follow along with me as I plunked out a g. “No, that should be an f. No, Elizabeth, an f. That’s f sharp…There it is!” Eventually she succumbed and allowed me the freedom to create my own arrangements of hymns to play in church. And when I wanted to play Turkish March by Mozart for the 8th grade competition, she didn’t tell me it was a little beyond my level (which it was). She just helped me learn it. She taught me how to practice. Turns out the old adage is true, practice makes perfect. I can still play that song, note for note, with my eyes closed.

My next teacher, Mr. Capps, was as talented as they come, but in a way I had never seen before. He couldn’t read a note of music, but he could play like the devil. This 80-year-old man’s wrinkled fingers glided across the keyboard so fast and easy, my eyes had trouble keeping up. He didn’t play classical, he played boogie-woogie. And he taught me everything I know about that left hand bass, chord progressions, minor and major sevenths, chord charts, lead sheets, and improvisation. He helped me build a repertoire full of the jazz, blues, and boogie-woogie standards that I still play regularly today.
He played with hundreds of bands in hundreds of locations and was never low on stories during our lesson. He told me that during the depression, the first band member they would fire was the bass player. And that’s how he got to be so amazing at left-handed boogie-woogie bass lines, because he had to cover the bass player’s part in addition to the piano’s regular part. It is a style of playing I still emulate – playing my own bass line, melody, lead, and everything in between. It’s actually the reason that when I do play with a band (which is rare), the bass player hates me and looks at me like, “Shut up, will ya?” Mr. Capps still gives lessons today and his students are blessed to have him.

My next piano teacher (many of these overlapped) was Ceil Brown, one of the most likeable people I’ve ever known. As I simultaneously took piano lessons from the University (I don’t count that professor as a teacher because I didn’t learn a stitch of anything from her), Ceil would translate the overly pompous babble into terms I understood and could relate to. I don’t think I would have made it through those 4 semesters of University classical piano without her.

She was much more than a teacher, she became my friend. Our lesson was a time of laughter as well as work. Her sense of humor rubbed off on me and I became much funnier whenever I was around her. I shared a lot of life experiences with her and she shared many of hers with me. We formed a bond and I know we will continue to be friends for a long time.

I needed to sing these praises today because I realize more and more just how much each of these teachers gave and sacrificed for me and probably hundreds more. I know that I need to give to others using my abilities as much as they did. Exactly how, I am not sure yet. Teaching is not a gift everyone has, but I know there must be something in me that I can offer to the world, just as they did with their gift. We never know whose life we are helping to shape or how we will affect them for the rest of their lives.