Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Music Goes On

Music claimed most of my waking hours last week and intruded upon the hours when I needed to sleep. Those of you who are fellow musicians likely know how that happens. Practice, whether vocal or instrumental, is all about repetition; it is about going over--and over--a problem phrase--in my case, trying to train my fingers to land on the correct combination of piano keys.
I hesitate to refer to myself as a 'musician.'
The term suggests a dedication, a degree of excellence, and perhaps most importantly, a consistant discipline which I have never achieved.
That fact honestly confessed, I can also honestly admit that what I possess is a gift for making--and enjoying-- music, a natural ability that has been generously passed along in the DNA of my mother's maternal line.
This musical heritage is confirmed both by family tradition and by news notes in the archived editions of The Ticonderoga Sentinel which describe church and social occasions where my great grandfather, his brother, his two daughters, son, nieces and nephews were the featured musicians.
That tradition was carried on by my mother and her cousins.
My mother played the church  pipe organ in the small New England town where she lived out her life, debuting at age 12 or 13, when she could barely reach the pedal board. [http://pipedreams.publicradio.org/gallery/us_northeast/vermont/orwell_first-congregational_hook.shtml]

I was not quite 5 when she began teaching me to read notes.  I was given a year or two of piano lessons by a lovely local lady--Mother's theory being that I would take the lessons more seriously from someone outside the family.
When Mrs. A. moved away from town, Mother undertook my instruction, fitting informal 'lessons' between her regular piano students.
I didn't enjoy playing scales and 'finger excercises.'
I wanted to make music.
I well recall the Christmas season when I laboriously thumped my way through a book of standard carols--as opposed to 'simplified' versions.  I can only marvel at my mother's forebearance as there was no escape in that small house from the sound of clashing chords and halting notes.

Christmas also brought a month of special choir numbers at church.
Junior Choir met early on a Saturday evening. As Mother was involved with the Senior Choir as well, I could linger and enjoy the preparation of the anthems. For a small town there was a goodly
amount of musical talent.
There was my mother's teacher and mentor, Mrs. Y. who shared the tasks of music selection, rehersals and performance.  Mrs Y.'s sister, Mrs. T. had studied vocal music in Boston as a young woman and added her precise contralto, as well as her pithy comments on the music choices.  [She scorned what she called 'tinkle music'--preferring numbers based on the classical model.]
Mrs. S. had a sweet soprano.  She didn't read music, but could be patiently coached as a soloist on special Christmas numbers.  She had a day job as a secretary in the large town 30 miles away, and came to choir rehersals still wearing her trim woolen skirts and soft pastel sweater sets, her dark hair waved, her careful makeup setting off delicate features.
Her plump prettiness and femine charm inspired much gallantry amongst the
tenor and bass sections of the choir.
Mrs. H. had a reliable alto and a fund of common sense that were welcomed.
Miss E.M. sang alto--heavily and a bit precariously as to pitch.
Sopranos came and went.  One family supplied a succession of attractive and musical young women--they sang until college and marriage took them away.
My pretty music teacher, Mrs. A. had a clear and beautiful soprano voice.
Young people from the junior choir, girls like me--boys whose voices had yet to change--were regularly drafted to fill out the soprano section and as Mrs Y. put it "sing the tune."

The tenors were a law unto themselves: Mrs. T's son [and later her grandsons] Mrs. Y.'s grandsons home from college at Christmas to swell the ranks;  Mr. A. who nervously fussed that he couldn't 'find the tenah note.'  There was our neighbor, Harry S. a farmer, who arrived dapper and voluable for choir rehersal.
He had a true and ringing tenor--a voice which we could sometimes hear in our own dooryard if he was working in a nearby field when the wind was right.
Anyone's husband who had been nagged into coming along as his wife's chauffeur was directed to stand in the tenor section.
Mr. B. was the bass section.  He was blessed with a deep basso voice and was fond of recalling the pastor who decades ago had taught him to follow the bass line in the hymnal.  He stood calmly by while the tenors had to be drilled, always instinctively knowing where his own notes were to be found. Mrs. Y. frequently stated that you could depend on G. B. [she always spoke of him by both names] to balance the choir, never drowning out the smaller numbers that showed up to sing on an 'ordinary' Sunday, but well able to anchor the larger holiday choir.
The music was traditional.  Some of the folders of anthems residing in the file cabinets had copyright dates from the previous century.  The hymns were the 4-square standards of Protestant heritage.

By the time I was in junior high I could read either the soprano or alto part from a score, could usually manage to play the accompaniment.  Mother drafted me to stand behind her at the organ when a score had many pages to be turned as she poured her soul and her skill into a Chrismas prelude from Bach or Handel.

I was in my early teens when Grampa Mac [a tuneless fellow who had married into the family of musicians] purchased a neighbor's old upright piano, saw it installed in his square, lace-curtained parlor, paid for it to be tuned.  My uncle, rummaging in some dark cupboard, produced stacks of my grandmother's music.  There were  song books and hymn books, sheet music of numbers popular in the lead-up to WWI. There were yellowed copies of marches, waltzes and rags.  I hurried to that old piano after school, bringing my homework with me.
I spent winter afternoons there, hunched in a heavy sweater, my feet warmed by the tiny electric heater which Uncle Bill had plugged in, my fingers chilled as they dashed over the stained ivories.
During my last year of high school I was often excused from regular classes on music day to play for chorus rehersals.  When the chorus director informed me one day, "If ever Norma is ill on a concert date, you will play for the performance," I prayed fervently for Norma's continued good health.
While I played and sang constantly at home, once past my confident and untroubled childhood  public performance caused me to feel a bit rattled and clumsy.
To my mother's disappointment, I didn't tackle the pipe organ.
I didn't go on to what might be called a serious study of music.
I had discovered the family gift of 'playing by ear' as well as by note.
I could transpose a song to another pitch.
I found that I could play the old hymns after the manner of my great-aunt Minnie who added the flourish of runs and octaves and chords to the notes on a printed page.
Married and attending the church of my husband's heritage, I filled in whenever an extra pianist was needed.
Back in my home town after years away, I was once again pressed into service when Mother needed an alto who could sight read a choir score for a Christmas performance.
When in her late 70's Mother's energies flagged and she wanted to 'sit downstairs' during the church service she contrived an elaborate schedule of alternate musicians:  one of her former organ students lived in town; another woman familiar with pipe organ moved in and was willing to take on a Sunday per month.
Mother approached me to take up the slack.
"You could have learned the pipe organ," she grumbled, 'its still not too late if you would apply yourself!"
"If your congregation can deal with the piano, I will play for you," I stated firmly.
I played for my mother's church.  I traveled to play for other area congregations who found themselves temporarily bereft of a musician.
I played on Christmas Eve in the next town when the regular musician went down with stomach flu hours before the service. 
I provided the music for several family weddings.  I played hymns for funerals when my eyes were so awash that I couldn't see the march of black notes on a page and my tears fell on the keyboard.

I played and sang with an immensly talented and rather eccentric family of musicians who had family ties to my home church.  Red-haired G. C. and his family were never on time.  I would sense a rustle of movement behind me during the prelude, the snap of instrument cases being opened, the shuffle of music stands. During the invocation G. would slide onto the piano bench beside me, sheets of music were propped on the rack, while he jabbed a finger and hissed, "Piano here. String quartet alone for these measures.
You come in again here."

Music has memories.  I play from books which are marked in my mother's beautiful handwriting.  Other pages bear Mrs. Y's reminders of the organ stops to use.
Some of the frail yellow pages have scrawls so old that the ink is scarcely legible.
Last week I brought out G.C.'s mimeographed pages and realized with a jolt that nearly two decades have passed since I last made music with his family.
The voices that swelled the choir of my youth have, most of them, been silent for decades.

I felt besieged by memories of other Christmases as I struggled to perfect my selections for our church service. I determined to play the notes exactly as written.
Perfection eluded me.  At night, staring into the soft darkness, I heard alternate harmonies, snatches of melody replayed monotonously in an endless shuffle.
My fingers moved on the quilt, reaching for an impossible chord.
On the day, the music went rather well. I played with care, mindful of the spots that might trip me.
Our pastor's wife sat behind me, adding a flute descant to the well known Christmas hymns.
I fumbled a few notes on the last line of the postlude--when the congregation, released from the hour's quiet, wouldn't notice.
Bonnie and I sat on, turning pages, playing together, musicians of imperfect caliber, yet inspired by the music we were creating.

I am tired.  By Sunday afternoon I wanted only my chair in the untidy corner by the fire, my book, my beloved Teasel on my lap.

A friend from church phoned yesterday to confirm what J. and I will be singing as our contribution to the final Christmas program. We took turns lamenting our lack of perfection as musicans.
We took turns reassuring each other, "Its OK, really. We do our best, here where we are,
where we are needed."
The songs, the voices, the scenes of other Decembers haunt me, a tumbling kaleidoscope of color and scent and sound.
And--the music goes on.


  1. I love music but was never a true instrument player. But when I was young, I could sing. I sang in glee club and swing choir in high school, but that is about it.
    Mom tried to make me take piano lessons, but alas, I was more interested in animals, going to the river to get buckets of polly-wogs and crawdads and a snake every so often to my mother's distaste. I could sing to all the critters
    Enjoy your music, it is wonderful.

  2. I have always loved all kinds of music but have no ability at all to play or sing so I admire those who can. My singing is confined to the times when I'm on my own and can sing along to a CD or to occasions when many other voices will drown mine. In fact I can pick up tunes very quickly and my voice is OK but it's the range that's the problem - above or below a certain level my voice simply cuts out! Have fun singing for your Christmas programme.

  3. I also love to play my piano, I always say that if there is ever a fire the first thing would be to get the cats into their baskets and then some how get the piano out. It is my life saver, played when I am blue and played when I am happy.
    I went to piano lessons when I was a young girl and am so glad that I persevered. I am not good but good enough to enjoy what I play although I don't like playing to an audience.

    I remember the piano we had at home had candle sticks attached to the front, that's how old it was but it was in good tune and I used to remove the front and the lift the top to make it louder and bang out hymns. lol

    Enjoy your Christmas.

  4. What a great post about music being a part of your life even now. I'm sure you and J will do just fine with your song.

    I took piano lessons as a kid, but that stopped when my folks split up. I sung a LOT growing up, church choir, and school chorus. DH and I 'jam' to music with harmonicas and a piano-T. He has played guitar and drums too.

    Music is great for body, mind and spirit.

    Have a lovely Christmas and a wonderful 2012.


  5. I grew up with music-my father could play any instrument he picked up and had us singing gospel songs in 4 part harmony when we were still little. My first memories (and those of my husband!) are of him standing tall before the congregation leading the singing which we did until he was almost 90.I took piano for 8 years as a girl, and still enjoy sitting down and playing. I have passed this musical legacy on to my children and now enjoy sitting at the piano with my 3 & 5 year old granddaughters teaching them little songs-and of course, they sing like little birds!

  6. Denim; I sing to my cats, who seem to be an uncritical audience. As a girl I used to sing at the top of my voice while rambling around the pastures or the woods--I was being dramatic, no doubt!

    Rowan; Range definitely gets to be an issue. I enjoy singing with a CD--especially if I can turn it up loud and bellow harmony!

    Briony; I still have regrets about the reconditioned upright piano which had to stay behind when we moved from Vermont to Wyoming. It had a wonderful tone which my spinet can't match. Playing the piano just to oneself is such a comfort at times.

    FL; It sounds like you and your husband have a variety of ways to create music. J. and I have regreted that we don't know how to play a portable instrument--we used to 'jam' with friends who played and sang bluegrass and gospel. Such fun!

    Jan; The tradition your Dad passed along sounds so much like my mother's family--hard to remember when we 'learned' to harmonize--its always been there--and nothing better than those old gospel hymns!

  7. I admire anyone that can play a musical instrument. Never was blessed with those talents myself. Such wonderful memories of choirs and church. Life did indeed seem sweeter back then. Merry Christmas!

  8. Jane; While writing this post I thought of the less happy memories that were part of those times--I'm glad its the sweeter ones which are dominant. As we grow older I suspect nostalgia colors all special occasions.

  9. What an interesting post, I envy you your musical ability, I know what joy it can bring. You were lucky to have such a musical family.
    I came to music late, after we retired I taught myself to play piano and my husband taught himself the guitar. It has added so much to our lives.

  10. I really enjoyed this post. I am one with no musical traing, I get instruments and never learn to play, but this made me think about trying again.--hart

  11. I used to have a pleasant singing voice, but asthma has robbed me of it, and right now, Bronchitis is threatening to steal my voice altogether! I enjoy music, but could only ever manage the tune to Wagon Train on the black notes of the school piano. My other accomplishment was to "ting" the triangle at the appropriate place in school proceedings!

    But my eldest daughter has a superb soprano voice (and hides her light under a bushel) and is quite musical all round. My b-in-law is the true music lover and lives for music as we do for books.

    A lovely musical story in the run-up to Christmas and one which has taken me back to childhood memories . . .

    Your card and seeds arrives safely, by the way! Much appreciated.

  12. Janet; It is amazing how 'making music' as opposed to merely listening to it, can lift the spirits. It doesn't have to do with comeptance, but with sheer enjoyment.
    Hart; I know so many musicians who have had no formal training--can't read a note of music. Some of it is about the patience to sit down and figure out the basics--I'm always impatient with the learning process.
    BB; I don't have asthma, although our daughter does. As to how it would affect singing, maybe a bit like wanting to sing when seasonal allergies have taken over one's throat and nose [?] Glad to hear the seeds arrived without causing an international incident!
    To all of you: I nearly didn't publish this post, although the ideas there-in had chased me about all week and needed to be sorted into sentences. I felt maybe I was being too nostalgic, or too personal.
    The kindly and interested responses warm my heart. Thank You!

  13. Noastalgia is almost a given thing as we listen to Christmas music, another year on. I loved your post and the story of your musical life. I love to sing and have been in choirs as a child and as an adult, although the cats and dogs are my only singing companions these days!

  14. DW; I think we never completely forget the music learned in those practice sessions. Over the years my cats must have gotten used to my singing. Some ignore me, others seem to notice. I remember one cat who always reacted by leaping to the piano keyboard and then hurling herself onto my chest--which effectively stopped the song!