Learning to play
First, I am not the accomplished pianist my husband is. He can just sit down and play, read pretty much any music, add notes, embellish to make it better than what is written, and think on his musical feet (or perhaps musical seat!) As for me, first comes being a singer, then a student pianist. Only after struggling with CNS lupus, did learning to play the piano in earnest become incredibly important. In the beginning it was primarily cognitive therapy and a musical test eye-hand coordination before commuting. With slow improvement a vision for more musical purpose emerged.
Playing the piano started almost ten years ago, not long after a fiftieth birthday. Although a handful of exceptional pianists are friends of my husband and me, personal goals include the realization not ever being in his or their league! Still, a love for playing the piano makes it fun. Learning is slower than might otherwise be for young student of the instrument, it will always be a work in progress.
What high and lofty musical goal is being pursue? To be useful! As a church musician, I see that there is always a place for any level of competent piano skills, even if just to improve my effectiveness coaching other singers and helping them learn their music. If I am careful not to overdo it, my lupus arthritis doesn’t flare and I can play the piano without hurting my hands.
So, perhaps quitting the day job to pursue music more fully isn’t reasonable, but then again, maybe it is! It won’t be too long before I need to cut my work stress down considerably, especially with my lupus. I consider retiring from my current day-job in government law, collecting my hard-earned pension and doing something less stressful like teaching private voice, piano and music theory lessons to children, or perhaps work part-time as a school choir director. Perhaps there should be a shingle hanging from my mailbox that reads, “will teach music for health insurance.”
California State University Campus
Going into college, my talents and gifts included more voice than money, so following music scholarships was the practical choice. The first three years of college offered solid voice technique and music theory instruction by wonderful music professors in the music school of a large public university in the San Francisco Bay Area. Then, in the fourth year followed a music performance scholarship to a private Christian college in Arizona. This opportunity included touring the U.S. performing 8 concerts each week for three summer months. This experience helps me realize my lack of stamina required for living as a traveling minstrel. What a wearying lifestyle! Realizing this hinted that there were greater physical challenges ahead that a few years later would be diagnosed as Lupus. But, it was a life-changing and broadening experience that enriched a young singer’s life!
Music has always been part of my life, long before the Lupus diagnosis. Long before a head-first flight through a windshield herniated three discs in my cervical spine and before lupus arthritis made finger joints balloon, it was still possible to hold a violin under my chin, bending neck to the left. Hands still could cradle the violin neck with vibrato motion in the left hand and a bow in the right. Now, that violin sits untouched in its case, proper in the corner by the piano. My younger sister and her first husband were also violinists, and excelled at it. It was their primary instrument. The violin was always my second, and the skill with was mediocre, at best.
Just couldn’t stop singing…
Singing was a non-stop activity from the time of my early childhood. Apparently, there are always going to be a few of us musical misfit kids that show up in kindergarten singing their ABCs with a natural vibrato. Thankfully for me, there was no stage door mother to go along with that phenomenon, and I was allowed to have a normal well balanced childhood! I was the elementary school librarian’s daughter, so books and homework always came first, before the music. But, there was always a whole lot of singing going on!
Everyone at my family liked music, was musical or sang, except my older sister. (She was strictly an artist, but could draw and paint like no one else we had ever seen, except maybe Norman Rockwell. Her music was played on paper and canvas.) Our two brothers have a bit of down-to-earth music in them too, between them playing the clarinet, guitar, sitar and some mean toe-tapping harmonica. Our dad had a smooth rich Baritone voice and loved to break into songs unexpectedly like, “Swing, Low, Sweet Chariot,” or his favorite, “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” and performed for several years in his youth with a barbershop quartet.
But, our mother absolutely loved music! She played the piano a little, as her mother did, too, and owned some various instruments that she dabbled with, including an autoharp, balalaika, mandolin and a couple of violins. But, when she sang to us with her sweet pure high soprano voice, we melted. Hers was not a shrill sound like so many women who desperately try to sing in the upper soprano ranges, but rather a warm milk-and-honey sort of lullaby voice with a lilt. She sang from the happiness of her heart, without affectation or guile. Her voice was genuine, humble and beautiful. She could hug you with a song, and then make you feel like singing along.
Mom infected me with incurable love of music and singing. Family describe me as singing while playing, walking to school, washing dishes, bathing (of course) and every night at the dinner table, my mom would gently repeat a special table manners rule created just for me, “we don’t sing at the table.” This stern but musing directive would jar me from my humming world of musical bliss to the rude awakening of my green beans, meatloaf and milk. Not being very objective about my own behavior at the age of five, it’s best to take other people’s word for it.
My Parent’s Old Record Player
Often sitting cross legged for hours on the hardwood floor of my parents living room, 45 rpm singles would play on an old Zenith monaural record player my parents bought in the early 1950s. Every note was memorized, mimic each narration and singing along with the different instrumental sounds dramatizing Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf.” This was my favorite, and sometimes in the quiet I could silently “listen” from memory to the entire score, just as if the turntable on the Zenith were still spinning. Some days, I would sing along with Julie Andrews’ songs from musicals like Mary Poppins or the Sound of Music. By the time I was old enough to learn to read, I had already learned every note and syllable of all the 45s in our house.
My mother was an elementary school librarian, so there wasn’t a lot of television. It was turned on for a specific program, and turned off again. Most nights, various members of the family were practicing instruments, doing homework or reading books in one corner of the house or another. Mostly, there was a calm peace filling our home, subdued conversations, interrupted sometimes by one of us playing records from my parent’s diverse collection of 33 rpm albums. They had just about everything, the popular music included a little Glen Miller, Roy Rogers or Nat King Cole and the “real music” included a broader selection of symphony and chamber music including Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Berlioz, Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Handel, Puccini and of course, my favorite Prokofiev.
The advent of rock music seemed respected and nominally welcome at our home, and was tolerated in limited volumes and time frames, as my older siblings embraced contemporary music of the late 1960s and early 1970s. I didn’t get much past the Beatles and Peter, Paul and Mary into the foray of rock music (if you can even call them rock by today’s standards) and was once again sort of a musical misfit, or simply put, just not “hip” in the hippie age. I guess I never got the memo, or just forgot to read it. I was too wrapped up in my love of the classics and by high school was studying Italian and German art songs and arias from composers like Scarlatti, Puccini and taking parts in musicals plays such as Oliver, Oklahoma, Carnival, Little Mary Sunshine and others.
San Francisco Symphony at the old
War Memorial Opera House, Van Buren St.
Growing up, we sometimes attended the Oakland and San Francisco Symphonies with my parents, and the love of music grew. As an adult, my music is pretty much performed only in the church setting, as a member of our church choir, as a soloist, as a duet partner with either my husband or a dear friend, in an occasional ensemble group, or playing the piano for services my church holds for seniors in independent and assisted living residences in our community. Recently, ab opportunity to serve with playing the piano for an entire church service was a nerve-stretching challenge, and a new milestone in this personal musical ministry journey.
[I posted this a couple of days ago, by mistake, before it was finished and edited. My apologies to those of you who received the rough, unedited version in your email. WordPress has had some changes while I was on a writing sabbatical, which I am still learning to navigate. Thanks! LA]