January 30, 2024 at 4:28 p.m.
Guest Columnist

Piano Reprise A Trip Down Memory Lane

Other than shots, few things gave me more dread than music lessons.

TAMMY WILSON | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

Other than shots, few things gave me more dread than music lessons. I dreaded the practice. I could always find something more fun to do, but my mother put the hammer down whenever I made noise about quitting. You’ll be sorry, she said.

Recently, I became my mother, only this time, I’m helping to introduce my seven-year-old granddaughter to the keyboard. In fact, Violet is practicing on the very instrument I used—Mom’s Baldwin spinet.

In the post-war era, it seemed every other American child was taking music lessons. That and dance lessons were just what kids did—girls more than boys, but still…

Not so now.  Piano lessons in particular are off 33 percent since 2020, when they were already way down from my student days. Meanwhile, the sale of acoustic pianos has plunged 60 percent since 2004, according to the National Association of Music Merchants. Similar stories apply to other arts disciplines—dance, theatre, visual art.

Music, unfortunately, is one of the first programs to be cut from tight school budgets. And the idea of sitting alone at a piano rather than being with friends makes it all seem like punishment.

With the rising cost of music lessons and instruments, teaching kids to play is a waning industry. That’s sad, especially for Baby Boomers like me who’ve long thought of arts education as a given.

I suggested this enrichment activity to Violet’s parents, and they agreed. Now that I’ve started taking her to weekly lessons, I’m having flashbacks about my own career at the keyboard.

It began the summer I turned six. I literally learned to read music before I could read words. In time, the lessons became a kind of competition among schoolmates, who took and for how long. And what book had we had mastered. It seems it took me an eternity to make it through the classic John Thompson piano course, the red books with old-timey pen-and-ink illustrations. Or the John W. Schaum books with color-coded covers featuring a drawing of a baby grand. It seems it took me forever to get through D, the orange book. If you made it past E, the violet book, you were ripe for becoming an accompanist.

My teacher was a talented lady who drove a green Nash Rambler and played both piano and accordion. She offered half-hour lessons for $1.50 in the local labor union hall.

My nervous butterflies began in March and didn’t end until I’d performed my recital piece on the high school stage, long about May. The grand finale were the star students—teen-agers who played accordion solos and duets to beat the band.

Lawrence Welk’s polka music was a huge deal at the time.  And what better way to succeed in life than to play the accordion? My Dad grew up hearing Germans and Poles play polkas. He regretted not having the opportunity to learn himself.

When the accordion salesman came calling, Dad was a pushover. Next thing I knew, I’d been signed up for lessons on a rented child-sized accordion.  Somehow endured the torment of coordinating my right hand on the keyboard and my left on the buttons I could feel, but not see.

During Violet’s first piano lesson, I shared my accordion story with her mom and another woman.  Accordions were a thing, I said, thanks to Lawrence Welk.

They gave me a blank look as if I was from another century, which of course, I am.

After two months of accordion lessons back in 1960, I was more than ready to quit. And then Mom gave me an offer I couldn’t refuse. I could quit accordion if I took up the piano.

Why, maybe if I got good enough, I could play like Joann Castle!  She was the talented blonde on The Lawrence Welk Show who could not only play a mean accordion, but make an upright piano shake, rattle and roll.

Taking years of piano helped my sense of music appreciation, melody and rhythm. It introduced me to fractions (quarter notes, half notes, whole notes) well before I encountered them in arithmetic.

By recording the minutes practiced each week, I learned endurance while earning points toward little plaster busts of famous composers. Beethoven was my first. Recently I found him in a box in the attic and returned him to the top of the spinet.

Amazingly, similar little white plaster busts displayed at the music store where Violet takes her lessons.

I see that the John Thompson red lesson books are still available. So are the color-coded Schaum books. 

I’ll be the first to admit that learning to play an instrument isn’t always fun or easy or glamorous. Lessons are more than a tough sell when there are so many distractions and other ways to spend money.  Still, I’ve never met anyone who regretted learning to play something other than YouTube or the radio.

---Tammy Wilson is a writer who lives near Newton. Contact her at [email protected]

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