Friday, July 14, 2023

Childhood Memories With My First Piano

    When I was about 6, in 1966, my parents bought a Baldwin piano for me.  Piano lessons were MANDATORY... Dad was military.  They asked my opinion before buying the piano.  In my 6-year-old innocence, I agreed that "sure, I'd like to learn how to play the piano."  That answer resulted in me repeating 3 years worth of first-year lessons...  not many people can say they were sent back to start over 3 times in three years.
    At 6, I had no concept of the actual amount of work, practice, and commitment that naïve reply was going to cost me.  And nobody, not myself nor my parents, realized how much wasted time and repetition the next three years would entail.  My first piano teacher started me off.  She was an officer's wife who lived on base housing within walking range of our home.  After nearly a year, she moved away.

    Mom and Dad found me another teacher, who insisted I start from scratch to learn her way of doing things.  Less than a year into it, she bailed, and the search began again.
    The next teacher taught group classes.  She also insisted I start from scratch to learn her way.  My only real memory of this class was how easy I made her classes look next to all the other kids.  And why wouldn't I?  I'd already had nearly two years of the same first-year piano lessons!

    The next teacher was where I started progressing again.  Mrs. Bernice Little was a little old lady living in a brownstone in an old neighborhood somewhere in Meridian, Mississippi.  She had a tiny white Chihuahua that was always trembling.  She said in dog years, he was over 100.  She took the time to get to know me, and figure out what I actually knew, and started working with me from that.  It might have been about a year that she taught me.  I recall the total count was three full years of 1st-year lessons, but Mrs. Little took me past that point.  

    She actually entered me in recitals, playing in front of huge crowds (to an 8-year-old, the crowds looked like thousands and thousands of people.)  I learned to play music the likes of Elouise, Nola, and the 1812 Overture.  All beginner-appropriate difficulty level, but it was far beyond what the other teachers gave me.  

    Just as I started enjoying the piano... Dad got orders.  She arranged with Mom to let me spend summers visiting her, but I never got to see her again.  She was advanced in age, and I'm guessing maybe she passed away, but nobody ever told me for sure.  What I DO know for sure, is that I loved her like a grandmother.  Anything I still carry from those early years on the piano, are treasured memories of lessons with Mrs. Little.  When we settled into our new home at Dad's new duty station in Jacksonville, my folks asked me if I'd like to continue lessons.

I said no, for two reasons.  Firstly, I had visions of yet one more teacher making me start over yet again with first-year lessons.  No way.  Not interested, no thanks.  Secondly, and much more importantly, no teacher would ever be able to live up to Mrs. Little's legacy.  The thought depressed me, and I refused to play the piano again.  Ever.
    After a couple of years, during our family visits to Nanny's home (my Mom's mom) I started listening to Uncle Freil playing piano.  He played by ear.  He sounded amazing, and was well known in South Georgia and North Florida churches and communities for his playing.  Most importantly, he made it look fun.  Somewhere along the line, I found out he never learned to read sheet music (years later, he learned some, I'm not sure how much.)  I started playing again, watching and listening to Freil play, trying to learn how he did it.
    Some 50 years later, after a lifetime trying to play like Freil, I love playing the piano.  Haven't read sheet music since childhood, and would be hard pressed to read it now.  I mostly play Southern Gospel and Folk/Country music.  Not as good as Freil, still trying to improve but doing well enough.

    Through this blog and elsewhere, I've spoken time and time again about Freil being my inspiration and how much he influenced my childhood, and that's completely true.  But this post started because in my "adult life" I sell vintage advertising on eBay, and ran across this vintage ad (see side picture).  Because of my childhood with a Baldwin Piano, this ad really spoke to me, and I featured it in my eBaying blog.
    This entire post was going to be on that blog (eBay Ephemera - A Page Out of Time), but it became so long, and so much more suited to being on "Grace Notes", I moved the majority of it to this post.  Click this link if you're curious how this post started out.  :^)

    Back to Mrs. Little; I'm not sure if she had family to remember her, or other students she inspired, but she lives on in my heart.  I'd like to think she'd be pleased to know she set me on a life-long path.  Maybe it's not the one she envisioned for me, but she's the one who first made me love the piano.  Mrs. Little, I love and miss you, and wish I could tell you what a wonderful gift you gave me.

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