A discussion of the music in my life.
MCKNOTES ON MUSIC
I’m writing this on the weekend before I reconvene the Kirksville Community Chorus. I’ve been retired for some time, so this is the most significant thing I do these days. I sent out a message to chorus members from last spring. One of them wrote a reply back to me saying, “After all these years, I’m still excited to get started again after the summer break.” Well that made me fell just great, but it’s the same for me. I’ve written twice about the work I do in the summer to be ready when it’s time to start again, but I still look forward to actually having the singers show up and start plowing through the new music.
Music has been a part of my life since I was a child. I started harmonizing with my sister on the way home from church when I was five years old. That’s when my parents realized I had some ability. We spent a lot of time in church, so I got plenty of exposure to church music at an early age. The piano player at our church really knew how to rock the piano, though that’s not an expression anyone would have used back in the 1950s. I decided I wanted to play just like her.
Five years later, when I was about 10 years old, I was allowed to start piano lessons. My sister started first, practicing at a friend’s house. Then my parents bought a piano so that she could practice at home, which was a much more desirable arrangement. Since we had the piano, they decided that I should take piano lessons too. I excelled quickly and had an almost immediate understanding of the language that is music. My parents and my piano teacher quickly realized that I possessed a good ear and before long I seemed to be able to play almost anything after I heard it a couple of times.
One part of my piano instruction was to play hymns from the church hymnal, but I had spent all those years listening to the lady at our church rocking out and adding runs and trills and all kinds of extras to the hymns in addition to what was on the page. My piano teacher would assign one hymn every week. When I returned for my next lesson, I would play my interpretation of the hymn. She just shook her head. She was a wonderful teacher and a great lady. Even then I could tell that she didn’t want to discourage me, but she did want me to practice hard so that I would play every note on the page perfectly. Needless to say, that never happened.
Shortly after I started piano lessons, I joined the Optimist Boy Choir. I guess there were about 20 of us. I was one of the younger members, as some of the guys were in high school. It was kind of like being on a sports team, but without keeping score. I could read the music and sing whatever part the director wanted me to sing. I loved singing. Our choir was pretty good. We once sang in Jefferson City at a hotel across the street from the Governor’s mansion. That may have been my introduction to travel. My family never traveled much. My father worked hard to make ends meet so that we never wanted for anything. Mother, too, worked outside the home to help keep our family going. When I got on the bus to travel to Jefferson City from my home in Granite City, Illinois, I was really excited.
My sister and I continued to sing together. We mostly sang for church, where we provided what was called “special music.” She sang the melody and I would make up the harmony. I also played the accompaniment. Everybody seemed to like us. I remember at one point we were invited to entertain at a sweetheart banquet for a church that was not our own, and they even offered to pay us. We couldn’t believe we were going to make money for doing something we loved so much. Of course, my sister had to have a party dress since everyone else at the event would be dressed to the nines. For my part, I donned my regular Sunday suit for this Saturday night event.
I continued to study piano long after my sister stopped taking lessons. Once she reached junior high school, she was loaded down with homework and didn’t feel she had the time to continue with piano. Eventually I switched piano teachers. I needed to learn some new techniques, so I got lined up with a guy who was a real professional. He had me playing Bumble Bee Boogie and other popular pieces, which my first piano teacher didn’t really embrace in quite the same way. After a while, I became embroiled in keeping up my grades at school and had to quit piano, too.
I still played the piano every day. I played for church services. I think by then I was considered the official church piano player, though I was still rather young. When I decided to go to college and major in music, I started taking piano lessons again to make sure that I would be ready to go.
I never stopped singing or playing music. As most of you know, I lost my vocal cords due to Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam. I can no longer make any sound at all. There were no options, and I had no guarantees that would be the end of my illness, but with lots of prayer and constant monitoring, I advanced beyond the five year period without a recurrence and was pronounced cancer free.
Even during this time, music was a comfort to me. There’s music in my head, and I don’t have an off switch. I encourage people to become involved in music and have found that they always enjoy it if they choose to participate.
I will be able to enjoy music for the rest of my life. A knee injury or any other physical difficulty will not rob music from me. In my head, I’m still a singer, and probably a lot better in my head than I ever was in real life. Athletes have a limited time to enjoy the sport in which they participate. With music, it’s different. Yes, I lost my voice, but the music never stopped. It is healing and inspirational.
Those who know my method are aware that I do not audition people for my choirs. I believe everybody can sing. As a music teacher, I would have students from time to time who had been told they couldn’t sing. That’s nonsense. It just takes a bit more time to find where their voice is and how to connect their voice and their ear. Music is for everyone.
Music is also a universal language. I might meet a Russian with whom I cannot communicate a spoken word, but I know that with a piano, I can still be their friend. I can still make them smile, and more importantly, I can smile. I know this because I’m smiling now.