The Music of My Life: A Reminiscence
It all started with my mom. In my memory, she sat down to play the piano at least once a day. As soon as I could talk, my sister Shirley and I would stand on each side of her and sing while she played. She was into the swing of the 40s and some of the songs I remember are You Are My Sunshine (which I used for a lullaby on my babies), I Ain’t Gonna Take it Sittin’ Down, He, Let the Sunshine In, Just Because… and if you gave me a few minutes, I think I might be able to sing at least the first verse and the chorus of each one of them. I have a collection of the sheet music and books she used as well as the piano she played. It’s a great monster of an upright, made in 1910 and it sits in my living room, looking lonely.
I think I must have been in second grade or so when I joined the choir at our church. Our director was Gail Pearson and she had a gift for music as well as for working with squirmy grade schoolers. She taught me that two different notes sung at the same time create something called “harmony.” When it was our Sunday to sing, we wore ivory white robes with maroon collars. I’m sure we made a cherubic picture, tho I can’t recall any of the songs we sang or how well-received we were by the Methodist congregation. I seem to recall Nell Hightree smiling from her spot in the second row, so we must have been, at the very least, not offensive.
In our home, the radio was on every morning, tuned to KFAB Omaha. Their playlist was, of course, swing. And on Saturday nights: Lawrence Welk and his orchestra along with the Champaign musicmakers: Jimmy Roberts, Joe Feeney, Norma Zimmer, Larry Hooper, the Lennon Sisters. Lawrence Welk deserves a blog posting of his own, so I’ll stop there.
I took piano lessons from a lady named Ruby Case. She came to the house every Saturday morning and taught me how to read notes: Treble clef lines are EGBDF - Every Good Bird Does Fly; and spaces FACE. Bass Clef lines– GBDFA Great Big Dogs Fight Animals and spaces ACEG All Cows Eat Grass. I think she charged something like 50 or 75 cents for a 30 minute lesson. I never got very good on the piano. In retrospect, all the kids I knew who took piano from Gertrude Newell played beautifully, so I’m taking the low road and blaming it all on Ruby. The fact that I only practiced for 10 minutes before she came on Saturday mornings couldn’t possibly have any thing to do with it.
At our Public School, the music room was in a building across the street from the main schoolhouse, along with the woodworking shop and the ag building. That was where we went for vocal music as well as marching & concert band. In High School, we sang in Mixed Chorus, Girls’ Glee, (or Boys’ Glee) and in the seventies, someone dreamed up Swing Choir – an octet that performed contemporary music and wore matching outfits and made an attempt at choreography. I always sang alto. Spring Music Contest was the highlight of the musical year and our school maintained a winning record. Our vocal teacher and band director was Bob Widener. A musical genius, he taught at that school for 30 years. He knew how to bring out the best in all of us. In the springtime, after we were done with Contest and when it was too warm to stay in the music room, he would bring out his guitar and take us outside. We’d sit in a circle around him and just sing for the sheer pleasure of it. In the summer, he piled as many kids as he could (usually six) into his convertible and drive us into Omaha to see concerts in the parks or musicals. We started calling him Uncle Bob when he took our marching band to the Sun Bowl where we marched in the parade in El Paso, Texas in 1972. He and six of us from Lyons went on a tour of Europe with the Mid-America Band, Orchestra and Choir in 1973. London was where I first saw live musical theatre; we saw Showboat and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat – still two of my favorites. We traveled by bus through England, took a ferry across the English Channel (my first experience with seasickness), visited France, Germany and Switzerland, giving concerts in each city we stopped. I was in the orchestra and we always closed with The William Tell Overture (a/k/a The Lone Ranger Theme), thus assuring a standing ovation everywhere, because even if it’s done badly, that overture makes you want to stand up.
(To be continued)