Saturday, August 21, 2010

Beginnings


Because a blog has to start SOMEWHERE, and I will introduce myself slowly over time, I take you, dear reader, to the very beginning, when I first placed my then-skinny self upon a piano bench.


     In the fifth grade or so, my mother decided that I needed something to occupy my time. It was decided that I would take piano lessons. I don't think that I ever asked for lessons, it just seemed the thing to do.

     My first piano teacher was a colorful woman by the name of Myra French (pictured above, circa 1974, with yours truly - sardine shoulders and all.) Her husband Ray was my third cousin. She could talk the ears off of Prince Charles. I loved her. I think Mama paid $2.50 for a 30-minute lesson.

     For some odd reason Myra dispensed with the modern, up-to-date (at the time) David Carr Glover method she was using with the other students, and put me in a little oblong-shaped red book entitled "Teaching Little Fingers to Play". It was a letdown for a ten-year-old, and a mentally gifted ten-year-old at that. But Myra had her reasons. That was my first contact with the John Thompson Piano Course.

     I guess I progressed rapidly, but not at at an alarming rate. I have taught students who seemed to have progressed faster than I did. I never really thought of myself as musically gifted; I was just doing something I enjoyed.

     In my first recital in spring of 1971 I played two pieces - "Our School Band" by David Carr Glover, and an original composition - my first - "The Happy Homework Hum". It was in an A major five-finger position and used only two chords - I and V7.

     Over the years I remember a few other recital performances, nothing out of the ordinary. The Frenches had moved from Roanoke to Fayette, Alabama in 1972, and I did not study piano during my seventh-grade year.

     I had continued working on my own in those John Thompson Second and Third Grade Books, reveling in such fine literature as the Burgmueller Ballade (my first big classical warhorse; I thought I was something when I could play that) and the Barcarolle from Offenbach's "Tales of Hoffmann". I played the Barcarolle in a school talent show; I think it was a success. It was the first time that my teachers knew that I "could play".

     The French family returned to Roanoke the following year and I resumed study with Myra. By then I was playing a little Bach - the ubiquitous Prelude in C from the Well-Tempered Clavier, and some of the pieces from the Anna Magdalena Notebook.

     I recall playing that Bach prelude at a recital in a local nursing home, along with - get this - "Tubular Bells - Theme from 'The Exorcist'"! (hey, it was a cool piece for a fourteen-year-old). In my last recital with Myra (the above photo is from that recital) I played the John Thompson arrangement of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody no. 2, and the John Schaum arrangement of the Grieg Piano Concerto. I have a cassette recording of this performance somewhere, and it's really embarrassing. Instead of using printed programs, we announced our pieces before we played. From the sound of the tape recording, I think my voice changed sometime during that evening.

     Myra Keeble French Williamson died early in the morning of June 20, 2010, of an apparent heart attack. I had the honor of giving a brief eulogy at her funeral, and her former students Sanford Watson and myself performed. I played the Chopin Etude in C sharp minor, op. 25 no. 7. Myra gave so much to our community, in ways that reached beyond music. For I am white, and Sanford is black. Myra was the first piano teacher in our town to accept black students. Sanford went on to study with me, then attended Jacksonville (Alabama) State University on a piano scholarship, where he received a bachelor of education degree with a major in music. He is now the band director at Handley Middle School in Roanoke, Alabama, still a close friend, and a role model to the children he teaches.
      To the memory of Myra, and to small-town piano teachers everywhere, I dedicate this blog, and welcome your comments and suggestions.

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