When I was seven, I began my musical career by writing a song about going to the drugstore for candy. My first composition was entitled, “If I had a Penny.”
Now you know how old I am.
There were five kids in my house, and only one parent working for wages. Money was tight. I got three new dresses every year for school when Sears had their 3 for $10.00 back-to-school special.
My older sister got to take tap dance lessons. I got a no. My younger brother got to have a dog. I got a no. But the one thing I did get, that didn’t cost my parents much, was an old upright piano and free lessons every week from my maternal grandmother.
The piano was from the previous century. The behemoth got parked in the basement. Basements are creepy when you are young, especially if they’ve been subdivided into little rooms partitioned by see-through bamboo curtains, and especially if the piano is placed directly in front of a bamboo curtain that is hiding the oil tank for the furnace. The noisy, gurgling oil tank. Our basement had its own monster.
I didn’t like being alone down there. There were noises from the tank and also from the creepy bomb shelter my grandfather had built for us during the Cold War. My mom used it to store canned goods, and the spiders used it in case of incoming bombs from Russia. The bomb shelter was right behind the floor drain with the broken cast iron cover around the washer hose, which was also a creep factor for monster hands.
I was supposed to practice for a half hour. I convinced my little sister (who also got piano lessons) to come down there with me, and I’d wait for her if she’d wait for me. I did my scales, chords, and arpeggios faithfully to warm up for the pieces I was supposed to learn. When we were both finished our half hour practices, we dashed up the open-to-the-back wooden stairs as the oil tank groaned good-bye.
My grandma wasn’t too tough of a teacher. She’d say, “That’s okay, honey,” if I hadn’t practiced much. After all, she was my mee-maw!
Lessons were always at Grandma and Grandpa’s house, which sat on a gorgeous hillside down to a creek. They had bird feeders at their living room windows. They had a carved mahogany console piano with a matching bench. It looked better, sounded better, and smelled better than mine. It wasn’t in a scary basement. I could sit there for hours and play it — until there were cookies. Grandmas always had cookies.
I dropped out of chorus in ninth grade and quit piano lessons, too. My mom got me a “real” piano teacher in high school, but after one lesson, I was done with him. He scolded me for not knowing theory, for not practicing two hours a day, and for not being better after five years of lessons.
I could play Yesterday on the piano along with the theme from Love Story, and of course, Chopsticks. After college, I learned to play Santa Claus in Coming to Town and Babes in Toyland in the Greenwood Elementary School basement before my remedial reading students came down for lessons.
Decades later, I joined my church chorus. The musical notes and symbols came back to me. I discovered I was no longer an alto. My voice had dropped to tenor, after all those years of signing along with Elton John, the Beatles, and Hall and Oates.
Six years ago, I auditioned for a community chorus and got in. Four years ago, I auditioned for the small jazz group within the chorus and got in. I am also in a sextet as one of only two tenors. We will sing into mikes for our second performance in December.
Lots of my friends have good voices but can’t read music. High schools stopped teaching it in the 60’s and 70’s, unless you signed up for an elective. Choruses cost money for outfits. In those days it was out of reach or just not cool.
Thanks, Grandma. Because of you and your free piano lessons, I am able to read music, understand timing, play chords, read dynamics symbols, and play enough piano to practice my vocal parts.
Thanks, Mom and Dad, for procuring the big upright piano and sticking it down in the scary basement.
I didn’t become a concert pianist, but singing is something to enjoy for a lifetime. Thanks to my relatives, I am enjoying it every single day.
Couldda Woulddda Didda
It took 30 years after dropping out in 9th grade, but I joined a community chorus.