“Mama, I want to learn piano. Mama, can I take piano lessons? Mama….Mama….” I don’t remember where this obsession came from. I just remember my childish frustration with my toy piano with painted-on black keys. I had no access to a “real” piano, but I KNEW those painted-on keys did NOT SOUND RIGHT.
Then, too, was also the frustration of how to play songs. I could pick things out by ear, but there had to be other ways, to put music together like I’d seen on TV. I had been so excited to start school and adored reading, but by the second grade I had seen this other mysterious printed language that promised something even more wonderful than a story: Music! I knew that if I could read words, I could learn to read music, I just needed someone to teach me.
One day, Mom saw something in the paper about piano lessons. “Mrs. Clark!” she exclaimed, “why, she taught me Geometry in high school!” A phone call was made, and not long afterwards we were heading to town where I was introduced to a lovely older lady with tight grey curls, orthopedic shoes, thick bifocal cat-eye glasses and a twinkle in her eyes. Her home was small and simple and smelled of pine, furniture oil, Cashmere Bouquet and baked goodies that I couldn’t quite identify. Best of all, there, was an upright piano in a place of honor, right in the front room.
Mom sat with us during my first lesson. At the end of that lesson, we all agreed that we would continue. I went home with Eric Steiner’s Junior Approach to the Piano, and headed to my aunt’s house to practice, as she had a piano. Within a week or two, a rental piano was delivered to our home, and Mom was bringing me twice a week to Mrs. Clark’s house.
I suppose other teachers could have guided me through learning to play, but Mrs. Clark taught me more than that. She never hosted recitals (saying she was too old), but focused on a student learning to play whatever music they loved. To be sure, we worked through entire courses from Eric Steiner, John Thompson, and Michael Aaron (along with Czerny’s School of Velocity and quite a few theory books), but she also welcomed anything I happened upon that I brought in to tackle. From the Reader’s Digest Fireside Book of Folk Songs to books of popular songs and various “Greatest Hits of……” it was welcomed in Mrs. Clark’s home.
I didn’t just learn to read music and play piano. I also learned to make graham cracker brownies (she always had a bag of these for me, and for every student after each lesson) and I loved hearing her stories of playing for the silent movies when she was a teen. She was born in the late 1800s, and I began taking lessons from her in the late 1960s, so you do the math. She had fallen in love with a man considerably older than she was. They had fewer years together than many couples, but those years were precious and filled with joy. They had one son. She saw both World Wars, and told me what it was like “back home” during those difficult years. She listened to my joys and frustrations at school and dispensed advice without my even realizing it. Over the years, she became more housebound, but her students brought her joy and, she said, “kept her young.” She wasn’t able to attend church often, but would get dressed up to watch Sunday services on television. She would also make it a point to watch every Alabama football game that was televised; Coach “Bear” Bryant had been a student of hers some years before, so needless to say, she was a huge fan of the Crimson Tide.
I learned from Mrs. Clark that making music is more than just playing in perfect time with a metronome; it’s about playing with joy. If you miss a note, she’d say, just keep going and carry an attitude that said everything was perfect. I didn’t realize it at the time, but playing piano for a silent movie demanded that, just as does any situation of performing live for an audience.
When I was halfway through high school, she announced that she would be retiring from teaching piano and moving away to be closer to her only son. Before leaving, she gave me a stack of her sheet music from the early 1900s.
I couldn’t imagine having any other piano teacher; what could they possibly teach me that Mrs. Clark had not already taught? I could practice on my own, and did so. I poured my focus into other high school activities and trying to figure out what to do with my life. We kept up through letters, and I was able to visit her in her new home (about an hour away) on a couple of occasions.
She moved into a nursing home when I was in college, but we would still correspond. I was busy with classes, and she and my mom corresponded as well. Her mind was sharp as ever, and she asked the nursing home staff what she could do to assist with recordkeeping, letter writing, etc. Health care privacy laws were not quite as strict then as they are now, and she was a welcome help to the staff. Her one complaint? “All these old people around here who complain all the time!”
She died not long after I had graduated from college. I went to the funeral home early in the morning on the day of her funeral, and sat quietly in the parlor and gave thanks for the incredible gift that she was in my life. Even today, 3 decades later, I think of her and give thanks for her presence in her life. I didn’t realize then that her teachings were applicable to life: Do things you love with joy. If you mess up, just keep going with the attitude that everything is fine, because it really is.
In memory of Mrs. Edna Reynaud Clark, 1891 – 1984