Sepia Saturday – Come Over and Play me a Tune

Sepia Saturday provides bloggers with an opportunity to share their history through the medium of photographs. 

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When my daughter was upper elementary school age, her piano teacher was a little perturbed that this was the age when parents began giving their children an ultimatum: You have to choose between activities. You can’t do them all.

She sweetly told a student who decided to drop piano lessons in favor of cheerleading, “I hope you will come over when you are forty and do some cheers for me.”

I’m thankful that my parents provided me with the opportunity to take piano lessons and the encouragement I needed to continue throughout high school. I confess that I did not always practice joyfully.

My mom and I lived with her parents when I was young. The living room was small and the coal stove took up more than its share of the space, so the upright piano they had was relegated to my grandparents’ bedroom behind curtain #2 – on the right behind my mom in this unflattering but kind of funny picture of mom and her sister one Christmas morning.

I’m sure I enjoyed doing my share of banging on the piano, although I don’t think my grandmother was big on banging. When I went to Kindergarten and was the youngest and least adept student at everything, my teacher assigned me singing homework. I was to have my mother play an octave on the piano and I was to try to match the sounds of each note. Lacking in self-awareness, I didn’t realize this homework was probably assigned because my off-key singing was driving my teacher crazy. I only thought of it as an assignment to spend time with my mom, and that was fine with me. I learned to play “Chopsticks” and “The Knuckle Song” on this piano – right hand only and only the beginning of the song.

When my mother remarried, we moved to Kansas and we got a piano. I don’t remember if I begged for one, or if my parents just found a deal on an old upright and thought it would be a good thing for our growing family to have. My piano teacher lived close enough for me to walk or ride my bike to her house and I enjoyed learning to play. It was low key – no recitals, just practice at home and lessons at her house.

The move to Joplin, Missouri meant a new piano and new teachers. The only thing I remember about the first teacher is that she had draperies that covered a large swath of windows that included a corner and it was a bit of a drive for my mom. Then I started taking lessons from our minister’s wife, Mrs. Conklin. All was good.

Next was the move to Corsicana, Texas, where I found myself taking lessons at a piano studio – a large older home with several teachers, each with a room for teaching. There were Bach festivals, hymn festivals, recitals, and auditions for the National Piano Guild. Yikes. I was a junior in high school by this time and had no experience with any of this stuff. They were so serious. I was less than pleased.

I can’t find the photo I know exists of the piano 🙁 , but I found several programs and this treasure.

You have a lovely light touch – especially your leggero & stacccato – You are hampered by insecurity – both in memorizing and depth of tone – Command the instrument & try not to be timid – and do work on memory – carefully – It will give you much more confidence & pleasure.

When my youngest daughter was preparing for something similar to the above only on clarinet, I was talking to my mother on the phone about how much my daughter did not want to do it. She loved music and playing her instruments, but despised these tortures. Mom told me that she had always felt terrible for making me participate in a recital when I really, really didn’t want to. Sure enough, right in the middle of my lengthy piece, my mind went blank. I tried and tried to jump back in, but just couldn’t and walked away from the piano without finishing. I guess I had not worked on memory as carefully as the judge had implored me to do. I had completely forgotten about this particular humiliation until mom mentioned it, and I was surprised at her memory of it – and her regret – after so many years.

After my husband and I had been married a few years and moved into a house, he surprised me with a piano. I started playing some again, but when I started having babies, I quit. Our kids all took lessons, some longer than others. There were a few memorable recitals – like the one where young A decided that she would not only play “Beauty and the Beast,” but sing it as well. I was very nervous for her and gave her every opportunity to opt out, but she did it. I was not the only mom in the room with teary eyes after her sweet rendition.

Over the years, I would vow to get back to playing, but I never seemed to stick with it. I could play some of the more difficult pieces I’d learned years earlier through sheer muscle memory, but couldn’t play others that were of equal difficulty.

About 18 months ago, I started playing again as a challenge from a relative. She had been challenged by one of her young relatives to play piano or another instrument 10 minutes a day for 100 consecutive days and she opened up the challenge to her Facebook friends. I said I was in. Well, I was about 10 days into the challenge when I missed a day. I confessed on Facebook and asked if I had to begin again. The former teachers in the family all said, “Yes! You do!” So I did and I completed the challenge – only missing on days when I was sick or traveling and picking up the count when I was back. I still had my childhood piano books and started with a book that I could play – but not perfectly. Ten minutes was a perfect amount of time to commit to. Who can’t find ten minutes? And, surprisingly, I improved.

But this was not the only benefit. After cancer, I had a lot of difficulty with brain function – especially executive function and it has persisted. Although I had improved before the piano challenge, I noticed that I was improving more quickly. My very quiet mind began to hold more than one thought at a time.

Another fun thing happened. When I completed the 100 days, I posted my accomplishment on Facebook. A couple of weeks later I received a letter in the mail.

I look forward to meeting Hazen some day! His challenge brought me back the piano.

“Piano-playing is an ideal, all-weather, lifetime hobby or a profitable profession.”

Be sure to play along and discover another ideal, all-weather, lifetime hobby – participating in Sepia Saturday.


12 thoughts on “Sepia Saturday – Come Over and Play me a Tune

  1. I could use something to improve my memory, but I never learned to play the piano. I used to remember the words to songs, but could never really sing.

  2. Oh Kathy, this is a wonderful post. I never knew the Knuckle Song was a real thing. My mom used to do that. I thought it was just something she did. I have done it for my 2- yr old grand girl and she tries to do it but her little hands don’t have enough umph yet. And for the record, I can empathize with you on that memorizing thing. I recall a recital when I got stuck and just kept repeating a section like a never-ending loop until my teacher just said, “Ok that’s enough.” I could have died.

    • Wendy, I didn’t know that song had a name, so I googled random phrases – play black keys with fist, or something like that – and found the Knuckle Song. I’m sure many of us suffered terrible humiliations at the piano. Maybe it was character building ???

  3. I wondered about the Brownie uniform too. And I had a pair of slippers just like those – except I was a little older when I had them. My grandmother taught all four of us kids in my family to play the piano. I don’t play much anymore, but I have a very nice Yamaha studio piano which my husband gave to me one Christmas (brand new, too!) after I’d been playing on an old second (or third) hand piano with chipped keys, and once in a while I get the urge to sit down and tickle the ivories a bit with things I remember from the past. When I was growing up we had an old upright piano painted an awful mustard yellow color which was eventually relegated to the garage where I’d go to play when the mood struck – sometimes wearing a nice warm jacket as there was no heat in the garage! Not the best place for a piano!!

    • How nice to have a grandmother who could teach all of you! I kept up the short daily playing for several months after the challenge, but have slacked off. I’m putting it back on the priority list.

  4. A truly inspiring story! I teach only private music students on my instrument, the horn, and always encourage them to find fun by expressing yourself through music. Learning the basic instrumental skills and the mysterious musical code can seem very daunting for children, but I’ve known a number of adults who, like you, have rediscovered the joy of music later in life. I think what surprises them most is how easy it is to learn new skills when you are older and understand how muscle coordination, memory, and practice work.

    • When I started playing again, I could hear the spirit voices of my piano teachers coaching me on fingering and hand position and dynamics. 🙂 It is fun to go back to those early lessons and play them as an adult, with what I think is more expression and understanding.

  5. Great history of your relationship to the piano. My personal favorite photo is the one of you in the Brownie uniform with the fuzzy slippers! My mom was also forced to place our piano in an out-of-the way spot in our basement. When we later built a rec room, the piano was permanently blocked in by a wall of drywall…and much like your curtain, that became our music room for early piano lessons.

  6. Such a great series of pianos in your life! My family gave me lessons, and I wasn’t able to keep a piano as I moved as an adult. Then I used to still have my favorite sheet music, and played for seniors when I worked in their assisted living or nursing homes (never could memorize music worth a hoot.) But for the last 20 or so years, my fingers have hurt maybe from arthritis, so I don’t think I’ve tired. About 5 years ago I even sold my electronic keyboard to a friend.

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