Mrs. Guinn placed the clunky brown headphones snuggly over my head, the giant earpieces squeezed my temples. A long, coiled cord snaked across the shaggy green carpet to a stereo where she stood, ready to drop the needle. I had no idea what I was in for. Mrs. Guinn had never offered to play music for me at any of my other piano lessons. Mandi, my friend next door, and I took weekly lessons at Mrs. Guinn’s home. I loved going to Mrs. Guinn’s for my piano lessons and looked forward to them every week. She lived in a quiet neighborhood in Shady Grove and was a white, 30-something year old woman. She had short brown hair in a long pixie style, a pretty face, and was always dressed in jeans and a nice top. Mrs. Guinn was married to an officer in the Air Force. I remember her as having a quiet and gentle demeanor. She reminded me of Toni Tennille of Captain and Tenille. The front living room where Mrs. Guinn taught had an upright piano on one wall and an organ against another, a large window overlooked the street. Her house was always meticulously clean and smelled good. “I have something I want you to listen to today,” she said as she guided me into the den. The headphones felt heavy against my ears as she adjusted them. I sat silently and settled into Mrs. Guinn’s plush black couch, waiting for the music to begin playing.
“Da-da-da-DUM.” “Da-da-da-DUM!” Those first four notes of Beethoven’s all too famous Fifth Symphony bellowed in my ears. The music seemed to accelerate, and I became completely enraptured, magically swept away. The pulse of the bass vibrated in my chest. I was only 9-years old at the time, and yet that was such a defining moment in my life. The rest of the world fell away in those brief eight minutes or so of that first movement. I was an extremely shy, introverted kid, but at my lesson the following week, I mustered the courage to ask Mrs. Guinn if I could listen to that recording again. Of course, she obliged. Little did Mrs. Guinn know how much that recording influenced me. I discovered I had a love for classical music. One of the other things I enjoyed while taking lessons from Mrs. Guin was the monthly gatherings she held at her home where all her students performed. The best part was when she performed for us on her organ. I loved watching her feet fly across the pedals. It was certainly a treat.
Mrs. Guinn was a member of the National Federation of Music and entered me into my first music festival where students performed and were adjudicated. I received a superior + and was selected to perform in the Honors Recital with many other students. Kabelevsky’s, The Clown, Op. 39, No. 2, was my first performance piece ever. As I climbed the stairs the night of the recital towards the concert grand piano, it felt as though I were having an out of body experience. Somehow, I got through my piece without any fumbles and took my bow to the applause of the audience. I would perform in many other recitals, each one causing more anxiety than the last. It was something I continuously struggled with.
Mrs. Guinn moved within a year or two. I was deeply saddened when she told me her husband had received a military transfer to Texas, as I had become quite attached to her. It was very hard to say goodbye, and I remember having a hard time sleeping the night before my last lesson. I probably shed a few tears, too.
My mom found a new teacher, and I began taking lessons from Mrs. Ellis, whom I didn’t like very much. The music she gave me to play was “old” and not very fun. Mrs. Ellis was older than Mrs. Guinn and had short, reddish hair and a southern drawl. I didn’t feel the same connection with her as I had with Mrs. Guinn and dreaded going to my lessons where very often, her daughter, about my age, invited me to play while I waited for the kid’s lesson before me to end. She had what seemed like a million trophies from beauty pageants stacked in her room, and I remember jumping on the trampoline with her in the backyard. I felt awkward next to her, as she seemed so accomplished for a kid our age. Eventually, I moved on and studied with Mr. Robert Buckner during my high school years. Mr. Buckner lived in Shreveport and was quite a colorful character. He had a piano studio behind his house and a dachshund named Angie. Mr. Buckner’s gray hair was always disheveled and seemed to stand on end to one side. I began every lesson with major and minor scales to warm-up, or Hanon exercises. I felt comfortable with his teaching style and sense of humor. Mr. Buckner was bit of a stout man with a laugh that welled up from his belly, which was quite infectious. A couple of times, I caught Mr. Buckner sleeping while I played. His snores always gave him away.
I decided to major in music and attended Centenary College of Louisiana where I studied piano performance, primarily because it meant I didn’t have to take a single, damn math class. I was beyond horrible in math or anything that had to do with numbers. Initially, I felt terribly inadequate compared to my peers who seemed to have much better training musically than I did. I struggled with ear training and theory and loathed sight singing, but loved composition and piano literature. It wasn’t that I couldn’t sing, it’s just that I had never been taught sight singing, and it terrified me, especially when made to sight sing in front of all my peers. That was a very joyless experience. I studied with Constance Knox Carroll and absolutely adored her. She was an inspiring teacher and incredible pianist. I’m sure, however, that I was one of her least favorite students, as I was not very disciplined and did not practice as I should have, especially during my senior year when it was expected to perform a solo recital of full repertoire. I got distracted with theatre and dance and remember her scolding me at one particular lesson for my lack of practice. I hadn’t memorized all of my pieces, and my recital loomed near. I just sat there unable to say a thing. No doubt, part of her concern was that a poor performance would reflect badly on her. She said that it seemed like I liked theatre and dance better. She was right. What did I know at that age? Not a whole lot, except there was much less pressure when you were having fun, for God’s sake.
I wasn’t exactly lazy, but discipline was not my strong suit. Practicing was such an isolating, arduous endeavor, and yet in those days, I didn’t always mind it. I typically hit the practice room four hours a day, sometimes six on the rare occasion that I was super inspired. There were times when it was such a rewarding experience to sit at the keyboard and just play without anyone listening. The freedom from judgment or making mistakes, the connection to the music; it was magical. Those were the times when I performed the best. But in front of an audience, I lost all sense of composure. Performance anxiety plagued me. I could not control my hands; they became leaden. Adrenaline rendered me helpless, and memory slips haunted me. On one occasion, several students were to perform with the Shreveport Symphony in a special recital. I was performing the first movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A, K414. I can’t describe how exhilarating it was to perform with a live orchestra. Connection to other musicians performing together was something I had never experienced. It was like flying, but without the motion sickness. Unfortunately, performance anxiety got the best of me, and my memory lapsed somewhere during the development. The orchestra continued to play as if nothing happened while I sat frozen, paralyzed. Eventually, I wove my way back in, but the damage had been done. I barely made it through the cadenza. Instead of enjoying such a performance, I was relieved when it was over. My legs were so shaky afterwards, I could barely stand.
After graduating college, I taught piano for a brief time at St. Mark’s Episcopal in Shreveport and another Christian school before moving to Florida. I didn’t touch a keyboard for nearly 20 years after that. The trauma of it all prevented me. I deeply regret that now. One day, my mom asked if I wanted my baby grand piano, the one they bought me when I first started taking lessons. Of course I did, and a couple of months later, my baby grand arrived at our tiny condo in California. It took up an entire room. I started teaching piano thereafter at a Christian elementary school in Mission Viejo, CA, and eventually taught privately on and off until 2013. My piano skills were sadly more than a little rusty, and I lamented the loss. I attempted to take piano lessons a couple of different times, but just didn’t have the time to commit to practicing with family responsibilities and work. I stopped teaching altogether in 2013 when I went back to school to pursue a Master’s degree in Social Work.
I have now had my baby grand since 1999. It has moved with us many different times in the last several years. It’s sitting in our family room in need of a little TLC – or a lot actually. Every once in awhile, I sit down to play when things are quiet and I can get away with it. Recently, I felt moved to find Mrs. Guinn and searched for her via Google. Amazingly, I found her, and she wrote back to me immediately. She continues to teach, perform at churches, and accompany choirs in Nebraska. Although she only vaguely remembered me, she said that she looked up old recital programs and located one dated May 23, 1976, that I performed in. She said I played a Schaum arrangement of Yankee Doodle as a solo and again in a trio performance with Mandi, my friend, and another student named Kelly Scott. I was so happy to hear from Mrs. Guinn and that she continues to teach and play.
I trained in piano for many, many years. I wish that I’d continued to play, but there was a part of me that felt my skills were inadequate, so I didn’t play for years. When I decided to study music therapy in 2006, that passion for music rushed back. And now, I long for my piano to be more than just a pretty conversation piece in my living room. One of these days, and hopefully not too long from now, I will get back to playing, perhaps a little at a time. Sometimes, it’s hard to play because I inevitably begin to compare my current level of skill to that of when I played daily for very long hours. People tend to tell me, “you should just play for yourself.” Well, it’s easier said than done. Nevertheless, music is truly part of my fabric. I can’t think of anything more powerful and transformative than music.
So, for your listening pleasure, here is one of my favorite pianists, Murrah Perahia, at the keyboard performing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 12 in A, K. 414. It always makes me happy to listen to this beautiful piece of music.
To Mrs. Carroll, who inspired me to be a better pianist:
Pictured above: My childhood friend, Mandi, and yep, that’s me.