As a little girl, I had an insatiable interest in playing the piano. My sisters and I loved to play Sunday School, and I was always the piano player. I don’t remember if that was okay with them, or if they would have liked a turn at the imaginary keyboard, but it didn’t matter – I was playing the piano. Our family did not have a piano at that time, and I was too young to know how to play one anyway. But whenever we played Sunday School, I took my place at the window sill, propped a book against the living room window and “played” the songs with great enthusiasm while the others sang along. I also played the table tops, the arm rests in the car, the kitchen counters, and any other available surface.
As a result of that kindergarten passion and eagerness to perform, when I was about 6 years old, my parents bought a used piano. My memory is that they paid $200 for that piano, but that seems like a huge amount of money for 1960. I started taking lessons shortly after that. Sharon Reeve, the oldest daughter of my parent’s good friends, was my first teacher. Sharon was young, cute, and fun, and I loved learning how to play a real piano with her on the bench beside me.
After a while with Sharon, I started taking lessons from Miss Clara Briggs – a professional piano teacher, I suppose. She was kind of a cranky old maid, and I was quite intimidated by her. A demanding teacher with very high expectations and little tolerance for children who didn’t practice, she taught in downtown Saginaw on the second floor of a building which was a couple of doors down from the movie theater on Court Street.
To get to her studio we entered the building through a glass door on the street, and then had to climb a long, steep stairway that always smelled kind of dusty and unused. On weeks when I knew I hadn’t practiced enough to get her approval, my feet dragged up each one of those steps dreading what was ahead. The studio door was wooden, with a big milky glass window in the middle on which gold lettering announced something like, “Clara Briggs – Piano”. On that same floor were several other offices, I suppose used by lawyers or other businesses. I was curious, but I don’t recall ever exploring the area beyond Miss Briggs’ domain. As an eight year old girl, I imagined the whole building as kind of an unknown land for grown ups, and I was a little nervous that I would encounter one of the other occupants and maybe get yelled at for being someplace I didn’t belong.
The piano studio was a large room with very high ceilings. It was sparsely furnished with a sofa and a couple of chairs for waiting pupils. Decorative crown molding bordered the top of the walls, and the hardwood floors echoed with our footsteps announcing our arrival. An alcove opened off the main room, and it was there that the the pianos were located – both of them! I was amazed and impressed that my teacher had two pianos. In my young mind that added to the seriousness of the whole piano lesson experience – two pianos were proof that she was obviously a very important teacher. The pianos were heavy, dark uprights and could be inviting or intimidating depending on how well prepared I was. Sometimes Yvonne and I played duets on those pianos, and sometimes Miss Briggs would play along on one as I played the other to show me how the piece was supposed to sound.
Miss Briggs was quick with her criticism and tight with her approval, so if she did praise me, I knew I had done well. Yvonne and I often argued over who had to have the first lesson. Some weeks I wanted to go first, anxious to demonstrate my amazing progress! And other weeks I thought making Yvonne go first would make up for my lack of practice, but of course it was just delaying the inevitable. It was while taking lessons with her that I started playing music from the well known composers such as Brahms, Bach, and Beethoven. After our piano recitals, each student was rewarded with a plaster bust of one of those composers, and Yvonne and I accumulated quite a collection. They decorated the top of the piano for several years, until after time they got broken, lost in moves, or discarded in a cleaning frenzy. I don’t remember that even then I saw much use for those small statues, but I knew they were important to my teacher and therefore they were important to me.
Although my memories of Miss Briggs are colored by her stern personality and her no nonsense approach to music lessons, she was an excellent teacher and gave me a very solid foundation for my subsequent piano training. After leaving her studio when we moved from Michigan, I was taught by a variety of other piano teachers until I stopped regular lessons at age 16. I have never aspired to be a performer, but my piano know-how has served me well. I’ve played for church services, weddings, funerals, and most importantly, for my own enjoyment. I’ve certainly gotten my parents’ money’s worth!
I still have that piano today. I think it became mine by default, because Michelle and Lorin didn’t want to move it to Salt Lake City when they left Greeley a number of years ago! Mom and Dad had it refinished in the early 1970’s, so it still looks pretty good. And now I’m teaching lessons on the same piano I learned on.
Teaching Little Fingers to Play – the title of one of my first piano books.