Music Teacher’s Positive Influence – Chapter 1

Hi, welcome to the first of many blog posts for Piano Dance. The purpose of these articles is to enhance your interest in the stories featured in my book, by providing more of the interesting “behind the scenes” information. If you have not yet read Piano Dance, I recommend reading the book before reading these posts. They will make a lot more sense if you have the background of the original stories. You do not need to finish the entire book before reading these articles. You could read each article here after reading the designated chapter, as each article will relate to the theme of that chapter in the book. For example, this article will tell a little more about my music teacher’s positive influence, related to Chapter One. After all the chapters of the book are embellished, I will post new stories that were not completed in time for publication of the book.

Music Teacher’s Surprising Skill

Our first story, of course, will be about Mr. Grubb, the subject of chapter one. Mr. Grubb was the product of an era long before our present day; a time that was much more formal. He always wore a black suit with a white shirt and tie for the lessons that he taught, and he always taught in an imposing manner with his deep bass voice. It surprised me, then, when he invited me to a Sunday afternoon party at his house in southern Delaware. A number of musicians and poets were there, having fun playing four hand piano, improvising uptempo jazz and ragtime music. One time, Mr. Grubb played the treble hands while Ronny Davis, the poet laureate of  Delaware played the bass. People were laughing and applauding as they finished. As Mr. Grubb got up from the piano, he noticed my astounded expression at seeing a playful side of him that I had never seen. In answer to my expression, he came over to me, leaned over, and said very slowly and distinctly in his deep, resonant voice, “The sign of a misspent youth.”

Mr. Grubb’s Music Composition

For years, Mr. Grubb had been working on an opera. Ronny Davis had written a libretto and Mr. Grubb was working on the music. They completed one beautiful aria for the soprano lead, and Mr. Grubb had my mother sing it at a recital at the Wilmington Music School. Mr. Grubb was concerned that the melody might be stolen if there were a recording, so he had me turn off the tape recorder just before Mom sang the aria, and turn it back on for the rest of the recital. As a result, we have a recording of all the rest of the recital, but not the most beautiful part.

 

Years later, when I visited Mr. Grubb at his retirement home in Camden, Maine, he was still working on the opera, although Ronny Davis had already passed on. Mr. Grubb was not making much headway, as writing did not come easily for him. He died a few years later, and I never heard what became of the opera score. I suspect it was just lost in a pile of other paperwork. For years I thought that was a sad ending, but not when I got older. As I aged, I discovered that life is not like a short story that gets tidied up with a bow at the end. At this later stage of life, the process is more important than the result. It is very useful for a senior citizen to always have a project to work on. That way, one is always involved more with living than with dying. Mr. Grubb had a happy and productive life, and he always had the satisfaction of being engaged in a creative endeavor.

My Music Teacher’s Positive Influence

Many years later, I received all my mother’s music after she passed away. As I went through the many pieces, I found a handwritten copy of Mr. Grubb’s aria, “If Love be Sin”. I was delighted, because I thought it had been lost. Mr. Grubb had inscribed it to my mother, saying,”Odessa (Delaware) – March 23, 1966. Dear Winnie: It is my hope you enjoy this as much as the writer – LWG.”

 

I played through it on the piano, and it is as beautiful as I remembered. I don’t know what to do with it, so for now it is in a small pile of music on my piano, and I play it for myself from time to time, remembering two wonderful musicians who made an outstanding contribution to the amount of joy in my life.

 

Playing Piano by Ear

My piano tuning career continued after the publication of Piano Dance, so I continued to meet interesting and extraordinary people. This story is about a client for whom I had tuned for several  years. He was a genius at playing piano by ear. After I would tune his piano, he would play tunes that I knew and we would sing the songs together. Gradually over several years, he related details about his life. Here is some of his story:

 

Richard was a retired nurse, who had had a long career with a large hospital in the Los Angeles area. While he worked as a nurse, he had a side job on a television set helping actors pronounce medical terms. One day during the filming of Guiding Light, an actor was not able to reliably pronounce “glomerular nephritis,” an inflammation of the kidney. The director got so exasperated with the actor that he fired him on the spot. The director then turned to Richard and asked him if he wanted the part. Richard said, “sure,” so he became Dr. Michael Ferguson on daytime TV. Richard was not inexperienced. When he was a young man living on Cape Cod near Hyannisport, he acted in a small theater near the residence of Judy Garland. As a result he rubbed shoulders with both Ms. Garland and her daughter, Liza Minelli. He looked very much the part of a dashing doctor. I saw a picture of him when he was a young man, and he was tall and very handsome with wavy dark hair.

 

Richard had begun playing piano as a small child. He would listen to his older brother struggling through his piano lesson, then he would sit down and play the whole lesson by ear perfectly. He said it drove his brother crazy. He played throughout his life, but never professionally. He gradually added songs until he could play about 1500 songs by ear or by memory. By contrast, well-known professionals might have 300 songs memorized. It was so easy for him to play by ear that he never learned to read music.

 

As an adult, he decided to buckle down and learn to read music, so he took lessons with a well-known teacher. It was a struggle for him, but he applied himself and worked diligently at it. At one lesson, after he completed playing a piece for his teacher, the teacher commented on his playing, saying, “That was excellent, except you forgot to turn the page two minutes ago.” Richard had been playing from memory and by ear so automatically that he didn’t even realize it. The teacher continued, “I think it’s time we just acknowledge that your talent is so great that there is no point in you torturing yourself any further trying to learn to read music.”

 

After Richard retired, he went to various hospital and nursing homes around LA on several days per week and played old songs for a few hours as a contribution. He told me of one day when he was playing in a hospital and noticed a woman who had come in and out of the room a few times during the day, and who finally just sat and listened for a couple hours. At the end of the day, she came up to Richard and told him how much she appreciated his playing. She said her husband had died there that day, and Richard had played all the old songs they had loved when they were young. She said it was like he was saying ,”good-bye” to her through Richard’s music.

 

Richard said that he was more moved by that than by anything that had happened during his decades as a nurse. And it happened because of his music.