Looking back on how I started to try to master the piano, I can point all fingers at my mother. I never quizzed her later in life or at the time how she came to be a somewhat competent pianist, but she could play pretty well and had memorized permanently a couple of rather sophisticated pieces.
The first house I remember living in was at 122 Grace Street in Council Bluffs, Iowa. I don’t remember that there was a piano in the house. We moved when I was in first grade to 620 Harrison Street so I must have been between 5-6 years old and my mother had acquired a Steinway upright that must have been handled down from her family. How else would she be able to play?
Pianos were much more popular in the 30’s and 40’s in households back then and having one was a symbol of status and, in the days before television, were a source of entertainment. If there was a piano in the house there was someone who could play it, and people could gather around and sing carols at Christmas time or when company came and the conversation started to drag a bit, the piano was used to put some energy back into the room.
My mother arranged for me to start taking lessons soon after we moved. And like all beginning piano players back then, I was taught out of Thompson music books. I can remember that first I was taught to read notes in the treble clef and used my more dexterous right hand, then the bass clef using my left hand. I was quite proud when I played my first tune using both hands at the same time. Soon I was able to translate what I saw on paper to my fingers which produced correct sounds that reinforced what I was doing. If the product didn’t sound right, I knew I made a mistake. What took place also was the ability to later be very accomplished with the typewriter. At the time I took typewriting, I was the second fastest typist in my class and the fastest was a girl who was a better pianist that I was and never got anything but “A’s” for grades. I am sure this speaks to my brain getting itself organized to be adept at hand-eye coordination.
As I advanced through the Thompson books I soon reached a point where sheet music was introduced. Each year as I advanced through grade school, my musical talents also improved. At some point I studied under Mr. Sandborn whose studio was in Omaha, just a short distance from where my father worked. To attend my lessons, I would leave after school traveling by way of a neighborhood streetcar to the center of Council Bluffs then transferring to the Omaha streetcar. Later the streetcars were replaced by buses, but the routine remained the same. After my lesson, I would eat at the diner my father managed before making the return trip. Four times a year, Mr. Sandborn would hold a concert in his studio with a program supplied listing all his students in order of skill, with the most skilled playing last. As I grew older and more accomplished, I managed to play third from the last before moving on to a different teacher.
My move was done to avoid the long trek to Omaha and to study under a woman who would teach me ragtime and boogie and other music of my own choosing. I played with a lot of passion but my fingering technique was anything but classical. This finally caught up with me when I tried to play more difficult pieces, like a Rachmaninov where all five digits of both hands need to strike the keys rapidly to produce dramatic wonderful chords.
Harrison Street grade school only went up to 5th grade. So for 6th grade I transferred to Washington Street grade school which went up to 8th grade. This was the first time I didn’t stay in one room for the entire school day. There were 6 rooms for 6th, 7th, and 8th grades, two for each class, and we rotated after each hour. Classes were English, arithmetic/spelling, art/reading, geography, physical education/science, and music/penmanship.
Our teacher for penmanship and music was Miss Wind. I imagine she was in her sixties because she had white hair. She was tall and always dressed in long black dresses with accompanying old lady black shoes. And she was not especially fond of children, particularly those of the male gender. It all honestly, her appearance could have made her eligible to be a character in the TV show, “The Adams Family”. However, the characters in the show seemed to be happy with their macabre outlook, and any display of being happy was not something she shared with her classes.
I am not sure how this started but, sometimes she would leave the room and my classmates egged me on to play the piano while she was absent. So I played “Bumble Boogie” or “Sabre Dance” which I had memorized, to the delight of my classmates, whose ears were longing for something other than Brahms, Bach, or Beethoven. Of course, she happened to come back as I was playing, but I think she was in a position where she could not disapprove. After all, it was a music class.
In my class reunions many years later, my former classmates would reminisce with me about my boogie-woogie days, something I had forgotten about. I guess I made a lasting impression in a very small way.
When I was in high school, the music teacher encouraged me to play the organ situated in the school auditorium during my study hours and I continued to dabble here and there playing for school events. But I had long stopped taking lessons and my interests in sports, girls, and making money dominated my life to the detriment of my music career.
I have no regrets about this. I make no efforts to dig out my electronic keyboard, the sheet music I still have, and play to amuse myself. But, if I had a baby grand sitting in my front room, I would be tempted to give up crossword puzzles and to master those wonderful Rachmaninov chords.