For the love of music

Part 3 of the piano bits

So how in the world did I get here? I now have ten students. Half of them piano students, the other half voice students. And me, a music teacher with no music degree.

the choir I currently sing with

If you’ve been reading my previous posts, you know that I began playing the piano when I was about 6. I took classical piano lessons most of my childhood.

And I’ve been singing for longer than that. In fact, I think I’ve heard my mother retell a story in which she claims she never heard a peep out of me as a toddler until she heard me one day singing “Over the Rainbow.” This might be one of those stories that is more myth than truth, but it sure sounds good doesn’t it? And if you know me, you are not surprised by the tale, tall though it may be.

I think my first singing role was in Hansel and Gretel at the age of 4 or 5 when my older sister and I shared the role of Gretel–she played it one night and I played it the other. I was bitten hard by the theatre bug and pursued roles throughout my youth. Hal McCuen was the director of that children’s theatre project in Mansfield, Ohio. He was a driven thespian who inspired me and many others in more than one generation in that little burg, and I am grateful for having been one of his protege.

 My first choir experience was in the junior choir at my church when I was in fourth grade. There, I learned that I am an alto and that I could sing harmony when most kids were too young to carry a tune while someone else sang something different right beside them. My sister and I held up the alto section together, in fact. There were probably twenty other kids singing soprano, and me and Sally and one other girl singing harmony . . . and being heard, mind you.

Our director for that little church choir of prepubescent was really fabulous. She was a very attentive and patient teacher, and an excellent director who could squeeze amazing subtlety out of a bunch of very young voices. I credit her with my being bitten by the choir bug and having spent the last thirty years participating in community choirs, symphony choruses, church choirs, and in choir leadership all my life. Mrs. Ransdell, I tip my glass to you, dear lady.

In high school I tried out for parts in practically every play our school put on. I played Abigail in The Crucible, the maid in The Miracle Worker, Snoopy in You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown, and other roles I can barely now recall. I thank Bill Asher for generously casting me in things that gave me an opportunity to try to act and to sing. Bill was a bombastic thespian: every word he ever spoke and every move he ever made was played for the deaf audience member in the back row of the theatre. Bill helped me figure out that I might be more than just a ham, and that gave me the crazy idea that I might pursue theatre in college.

So off I went to college, spending two years pursuing a theatre degree doing mostly musical theatre. Kept singing, got some voice lessons, and got stronger. But I slowly began to see that a theatre degree was not the most practical route to take in college, so I switched to English.

Then in my third year, I met a merry little band of folks who I thankfully still count as my dear friends today. And this is when my musical education was renewed.

I was living with my girlfriend Cindy when, one day, two people came knocking on our door looking for her. She had met Jim and Kathy at the local diner where they discovered they might have some mutual musical interests. Specifically, they wanted to recruit us to come sing some choral music with them. Jim was the Music Director at the local Unitarian Universalist fellowship. He sang bass, Kathy sang soprano. My voice was low enough to sing tenor, my girlfriend sang alto. Together we began working on Byrd’s Ave Verum Corpus, Bach’s chorales, Victoria’s O Magnum Mysterium. We became inseparable friends and collaborators. I learned so much from singing in a small intimate quartet. Being able to work more intensely with each other on our sound, being sensitive to one another, listening to each other, working hard to blend—there isn’t one of us who wouldn’t tell you that it was a magical time in our lives and that we have not captured the same feeling singing with anyone or any group since.

Besides those glorious years expanding my classical singing repertoire, my friendship with Jim gave me the gift I had wanted as a child and been discouraged from pursuing. That gift—playing the organ. I had expressed interest in playing the organ to my piano teacher as I was growing up and her response had been, “You don’t want to learn that thing. Nobody plays that anymore.” Unfortunately, I never mentioned it to my mother or anyone else at that time.

But I had always loved listening to the pipe organ at church and now I had a dear friend who played it beautifully and loved it. Jim helped me wrap my mind around teaching myself to play the organ and, with his guidance and encouragement, I dove in with both feet, literally. I’ve never thought of myself as anything more than a “hack” at the organ since I am mostly self-taught, but I learned to play well enough to land the Music Director’s job in Florida, so I guess I did okay. Furthermore, being able to play music with both your hands and your feet at the same time is probably the coolest thing ever. Thank you, Jim. You inspired me then and I am happy to still call you friend.

Those years spent playing and singing with close friends at the Unitarian Universalist fellowship in Kent, Ohio set the stage for the next 30 years of singing in choirs, playing in churches, directing choirs, singing in a jazz ensemble, playing in a folk group, and teaching other people piano and voice in the hopes of passing on the love of making music to others.

So when potential students or students’ parents ask me what qualifies me to teach, I tell them, “a lifetime of playing piano and singing and a belief that being able to make music is the most valuable, spiritual, and inspiring gift you can give to yourself or your kids.”

I am blessed to be able to have a hand in that process in anyone’s life. And I am incredibly grateful for the teachers I have had all through the years that helped me improve my techniques, inspired me, and helped me foster, cherish, and never forget the gift of music in my own life.

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With a little help from my friend

Part 2 of the piano bits

When I first went to Block Island to work in the summer of 1982, I rented a room from a woman who owned what used to be an old hotel that had been cut up into small dorm-like rooms. Carrie and her husband rented the rooms to kids who came out to work for the summer. No kitchens, shared bathrooms, but at least it was a bed to sleep on.

Southeast Bluffs of Block Island on a hazy summer day

I didn’t stay in the room long, but it’s a small island and I kept in contact with Carrie over the years I summered there. By the summer of 1986, Carrie and her husband were running a bicycle, moped and car rental business. When a friend of mine who was visiting decided to stay for the summer, the decision was facilitated by Carrie who gave her a job and a place to stay for the summer.

Carrie is, to me, a larger than life character. She is incredibly generous, kind, smart, fun, and very driven. She plays piano and is the primary piano teacher on the island with over 40 students. In addition, she is always running at least two small businesses, being a house mom to her summer workers, principal organist/pianist for the largest church on the island and accompanist for the island’s community choir.

By 1987, I had already spent part of a winter on the island: I joined the community choir, attended Scottish country dancing sessions, and lived with and cooked for the island’s 94-year-old matriarch. As I became more a part of that small community, I was getting to know Carrie and other islanders more intimately.

It wasn’t long before Carrie found out I played piano. Carrie practically pounced on that little tidbit of information and asked me to come play a four-handed piece with her. I had spent some time teaching myself to play organ while I was in college, and had played some piano at the U.U. Church in Kent, Ohio, where I went to school, but I had not done a lot of piano performing outside of that.

And the truth is, I had never played four-handed piano pieces with anyone. When I first sat down with her, I was like, “No way! I don’t know if I can read two treble clefs at the same time.”

Carrie was undaunted, “Of course you can. You’ll pick right up on it.” Carrie has this way about her that challenges you in a way that expresses absolutely NO DOUBT about your abilities or hers. Suddenly you are whisked into this world in which all things are possible and we simply barrel ahead through whatever challenge lies before us.

So we played Dvorjak’s Slavonic Dances, Gottschalk’s La Gallina, Faure’s Dolly Suite. And we prepared them for her recitals. Oh yes, that little dickens had ulterior motives all along. We were always preparing something for her student recitals so she could end the recitals with a bang. All I can say is, I never knew what hit me. I was challenging my abilities in ways I hadn’t in years. And having a ball doing it.

I learned so much playing with Carrie. She’s a very strong piano player with very strong hands, like her personality. The only formal lesson I have had in years was when she invited her piano instructor, a piano professor from Brown University, out to the island to critique us and give us a lesson on one of our 4-handed pieces. The content of that lesson still informs my playing even now, and that was 25 years ago.

Long about 1989, the time came for me to leave Block Island. My mate and I had decided to move to Florida. I was looking for work in the Fort Myers area where an old friend could put me up until I got an apartment. I was getting the Fort Myers newspaper delivered to me on the island, and lo and behold, one Sunday there was a classified advertisement for a Music Director at the Unitarian Universalist Church there. I had already been associated with the U.U.s while in college at Kent State. My friend, Jim was the music director at the U.U. Fellowship there. I had performed with him, singing in a quartet, playing piano in ensembles, singing in his small choir and learning to play the organ in the warmth of that fellowship.

And by the time I was conducting this job search in order to move to Fort Myers, I had performed organ and piano in various places on Block Island, filling in as organist or pianist at the other smaller churches on the island, accompanying soloists for charitable performances, playing in chamber ensembles, as well as continuing to sing in the community choir.

The advertisement was for a Music Director, someone who would play organ for the hymns, play other music as needed for the service on piano or organ, and direct a small choir.

Still, as I said in a previous post, I did not major in music in college. So I’m thinking to myself, I’m probably not qualified to take this position. Yes, I’ve played in churches, accompanied plenty of folks, and I have sung in countless choirs, small ensembles, and as a soloist my entire life. Still, I thought, what qualifies me to be a Music Director in a church?

I took the question to Carrie (thankfully!). You can guess what Carrie’s answer was.

“Of course you can do this, Maggie!”

“But I’ve never actually directed a choir before,” I said in my self-depracating-ness

“So?! Oh, there’s nothing to it. I’m doing it at the Old Harbor Church. If I can do it you can do it. And I don’t have an accompanist; I do it while I’m playing the piano. You can do it.”

This is why I love this woman.

So, I made a tape (yes, it’s when we still had cassette tapes) of myself playing organ and piano and sent it off to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Fort Myers. And after a couple of telephone conversations with a congregation member and the minister, I landed the job.

I think there are people with gifts so great, energy so powerful, faith so magnanimous, who are so fully engaged in a forward motion in their own lives that they literally propel whoever comes into contact with them forward also. Carrie is one of those people. I am very thankful to have her as a friend. And this was not the only time in my life that she helped propel me through my own self-doubt. More on that next time.