By Amy McVay Abbott
Amy McVay Abbott is an award-winning columnist and author. Her columns, “A Healthy Age” and “The Raven Lunatic” are syndicated by Senior Wire News Service. She is the author of multiple books, available online from favorite booksellers. Her online home is www.amyabbottwrites.com and her Twitter handle is @ravensenior. She likes to hear from readers at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Above, a public domain image of a typical piano lesson with a group of students in the 1950s.
Music has been a lifelong love, though I have little singing ability or skill playing an instrument. In 1966, my parents decided I should take piano lessons. We always had music in our home—from hymns and preludes to waltzes and show music and Andy Williams on the RCA top-load high fidelity set.
My grandfather, Carl August Enz, gave me a black leather binder for my music books, imprinted in gold letters with my full baptismal name. I still have and use the portfolio. A leather portfolio may have been over the top for a nine-year-old with an orthopedic shoe and shiny, new metal bands on her upper teeth, but my businessman grandfather wanted me to start out correctly.
My mother, Marilyn Enz McVay, drove me weekly to Helen Akers’s big square house in Columbia City. Walking up the three steps to Miss Akers’s porch and the heavy wooden front door was scary. On my first visit, I turned and watched Mom drive the Chevy down the tree-lined street and wondered if she was coming back.
Miss Akers’s house smelled of great literature and fresh roses. The front room had large floor-to-ceiling windows with damask curtains over sheers and allowed muted light. Beyond the first room was the piano—not any piano but a glorious parlor grand piano, black hardwood with real ivory keys.
The diminutive Miss Akers invited me to the piano. She sat on a straight-backed chair next to the piano stool. Not a bench, but a real piano stool. She whirled the stool until it suited my fourth-grade frame. Her metronome sat atop the piano, click, pause, click, and pause; soon my breathing mimicked the count.
She placed my hands on the keys in the Middle C position and complimented me on my long, thin fingers and “excellent” reach. Later my hands were perfect for holding a vintage Schaeffer fountain pen, and now on a keyboard. Long fingers and extension don’t necessarily guarantee an excellent pianist.
I enjoyed the sound this piano made. I learned about Middle C in my first lesson. Miss Akers taught me how to appropriately “play” a piano key, not press, not tap, indeed not pound, but “play.” Playing a scale on that piano always felt grander than playing my spinet. When depressing the ivory keys, the sound was richer and more resonant than the spinet, and one note filled the room.
I was in awe of Miss Akers but equally terrified of her. She believed modern music was inappropriate to play during music lessons. She told me that I could only play Bach, Beethoven, and someday, Chopin. I wanted to play show tunes from The Music Man, West Side Story, Oklahoma, and The Sound of Music.
As an adult, I am grateful for an early schooling in the basics of classical music. When I’m not listening to jazz or show tunes, I listen to J.S. Bach, the preludes I played for Miss Akers, the Goldberg Variations or my absolute favorite, Toccata and Fugue in D minor. Anyone familiar with the Don Knotts movie The Ghost and Mr. Chicken knows the latter. Atta boy, Luther.
Despite the glorious buildup, I did not last long with Miss Akers. Within weeks, she confided to my mother that music was not to be my vocation. I lasted a year and made it through several books of easy Bach preludes, scale books, and written exercises.
My parents moved me to a new teacher, a neighbor, Mrs. Kathleen Reese. She was a skilled church organist who felt I might practice more eagerly if she mixed in a little Rodgers and Hart with Rachmaninoff and Haydn. I still say I had “six years of piano lessons, except it was one year six times in a row.” Mrs. Reese, who is a dear lifelong friend, most certainly understood that music was not my vocation. She talked to me about everything, and God love her, she listened to my childish aspirations.
The joy I find today in live music is a tremendous gift from two wonderful teachers.