I grew up in a house full of music. My sisters were all musicians. Mary Jane was a music teacher and would sing with me as we played in the yard. Sandy was always playing her albums and 8-tracks on the living room stereo. Donna and Caroline would sit at the piano and split the piano part for “Evergreen” by Barbara Streisand and since I was the one who could hold the last note for the required 8 bars I would sing as they played. With my sisters’ help, I learned to read music as they also taught me to read words.
Thankfully, there were music teachers who recognized my love and fostered my talents as a musician. My little hometown school district of about 800 students had an amazing music program with six full time music teachers. I took full advantage of that music program starting with the violin. I remember the day Mrs. Niles, the string teacher, came into my Kindergarten class at nap time to ask me if I wanted to learn to play the violin like Mary Jane. I jumped at the chance. Mrs. Niles remained my violin teacher for the next eleven years, encouraging me to join local music festivals, the area youth symphony, and a string quartet.
After I taught myself piano my father wanted me to start taking lessons but Roberta Davies, my future piano teacher, wisely told him not to push me. “Sam – she’ll just rebel so you should wait until she asks for them. She will. Give her time.” Sure enough – I started taking piano lessons in third grade. Roberta was my teacher until she moved to Oregon when I was fifteen. With her guidance, I entered competitions and recitals. Roberta always claimed the best gift an audience can give a musician is the pause of silence at the end of a particularly moving piece – those few milliseconds when they sigh before the applause. She called it the “ah moment,” when you have an audience right in your palm and could take them anywhere. Roberta gave me that gift one June afternoon when I completed a Debussy piece at her house. I looked over at her, expecting a critique about the sixteenth note passage I had flubbed, but all she did was smile and nod.
Since I knew piano, it was natural to play xylophone and bells in the band. Or at least, I thought it was. Mr. Smith was my band teacher in Junior and Senior High School and in addition to the concert band, he directed the marching band. It was a requirement to march in the Memorial Day parade if you were in the concert band. I was not exempt from this requirement just because of my disability so he worked with me to help find students willing to march and push my chair so I could play. I spent the next five summers traveling all over the northeast United States and Canada performing with the marching band. There are teachers who would have given me a pass, but I am grateful Mr. Smith did not make any exceptions for me. I gave up percussion in the concert band though and transitioned to bassoon. Mr. Smith suggested the instrument to my friend Allison and I because we already knew how to read bass clef and, well, he needed bassoons in the band.
I continued to sing as well. Mr. Bunting, our high school general music and chorus teacher, made singing with a group so much fun! Each Christmas, the chorus would go caroling at a local nursing home and then downtown (aka – next to THE red light in town). One year a brass quartet joined us and we performed the Alfred Burt Christmas carols in snow. My former boyfriend used to be amazed at the volume of holiday music I know. I know them because we sang them in chorus, or in the Choralaires – the women’s choir Mr. Bunting directed.
Long before music therapy was popular for children with disabilities, I had music teachers who offered me the chance to use music in therapeutic ways. When I was frustrated at my declining physical strength, I could escape in a Rachmaninoff melody. When I needed to cry, I had my violin to help me pour out emotions. I had upbeat songs to sing when I was so happy I thought I would burst if I didn’t get it out.
I considered becoming a music teacher or a music therapist. But, while I love music, I knew it wasn’t what I was meant to do as a career. My music teachers were passionate, dedicated and patient. I am passionate about music, however I knew I would never be able to listen to beginning violinists learning to play “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” the first song in the Suzuki violin method, for the rest of my adult life. I don’t have the patience and dedication required.
I am grateful there are those who do have that patience and dedication. I am thankful to Mrs. Niles, Mr. Smith, Mr. Bunting and Roberta for helping to develop my love and appreciation for music. Each time I play the “guess the composer” game in my car I remind myself how fortunate I am to have had your talents and expertise in my life.