By good fortune, I attended a one-room country school before smart phones, Facebook and other diversions invaded. Our one source of indoor entertainment was an upright piano at the back of the classroom, available to be played by anyone from a first grader on up. Never an athlete, I avoided going outside at recess, instead amused myself at the piano when no one but the teacher was around. Slowly I learned to pick out a tune with one hand, later matched that with left handed chords until my results were recognizable and listenable.
My family had no musical instruments, only a wind-up gramophone and a battery-powered radio. We couldn’t afford to buy a piano or pay for lessons. Half hour lessons costing one dollar were taught Fridays by a Dutch farmer from a neighbouring town who arrived by CNR in the forenoon and returned home by train after 5 p.m. By comparison, a first-class stamp cost three cents. So piano lessons were unthinkable. For two years my parents had no inkling I was interested in playing.
As my improvising improved, the teacher had me accompany classroom singalongs scheduled every Friday morning. So long as I knew the tune, I could manage. One Christmas she set her sights on the class learning a French song totally unfamiliar to me. She presented me with the music which, of course, I could not read.
She persisted, and listening to her hum the melody, I picked it up enough to satisfy her with my version of the tune sufficiently to support the class as they sang.
The summer I was 12 my family paid a weekend visit to Mom’s friend in Rosetown where she and her husband were janitors for the town’s monstrous community hall. The only buildings I had ever seen even close to the hall in size were the livestock barns at the North Battleford Exhibition grounds.
Before the Saturday night dance began, all alone in the cavernous room I had a chance to try out the hall’s piano. Listening as they visited with the couple in their downstairs living quarters, my parents were stunned by my virtuosity.
That fall my parents bought a Craig upright from a retiring Winnipeg piano teacher and I began lessons. I learned to read music, but never took to it. I still amuse myself daily playing my way. Who could afford sheet music for all my tunes or take time to turn the pages?
My good fortune as a country student struck me recently when a 9-year-old sat beside me on the piano bench and I showed her how to pick out Happy Birthday with her right hand. She had never touched a piano before and was quite taken.
She watched my fingers, listened to my instructions, and repeated one section at a time building to the whole. In less time than it took a raspberry pie to bake, she could play the entire tune without error. We sampled the pie hot from the oven, and after enjoying two pieces, she hurried back to the piano to perfect her fingering. She had every reason to be so pleased with her newfound ability. Her quick uptake demonstrates a keen musical ear worthy of fostering if her family can afford lessons.
Her elementary school has a piano, kept off limits in the band room. Knowing the destructive behaviour of some kids today, I understand safeguarding the piano. But what a lost opportunity for pre-band age students who might otherwise wander to the keyboard and discover their musical aptitude.