Sunday, July 29, 2012

Carrie Mae

"Carrie Mae, Carrie Mae!!!"  I'll never forget that afternoon as my venerable piano teacher brazenly pulled out into the busy street, crossed over the center median, and headed toward the oncoming traffic.  Realizing her mistake, she was able to swerve out of the way just in time, but not before instilling a notable degree of fear in her fellow teacher, who was riding in the passenger seat, and me.  Having just learned to drive, I witnessed this whole episode from the back seat, the safest part of Mrs. Sims' car, because as you may have gathered, she was a far better piano teacher than a driver.

That day, the three of us had attended the Greater Memphis Music Teachers Association meeting, where I had been asked to perform Aram Khachaturian's 1959 sonatina as a demonstration of contemporary musical instruction.  I played at the scheduled time, not knowing that only an hour or so later, I would be treated to a joy ride.  Ah, Mrs. Sims, once again, you surprised us all.

From the time I can remember, music has been part of my life.  My mother used to play piano at home and sing random little songs while doing house work, and occasionally, she would stop whatever she was doing and sit down at the piano to play "The Glow-Worm".  When she did this, she was transformed, bouncing her feet up and down on the pedals, smiling and laughing, and sometimes, even singing along with her playing.  Every now and then, she might drift off into another song, but she always seemed to come back to The Worm.  I guess that something about growing up around things like that made me want to play music from a fairly early age, so when I was eight years old, I began piano lessons with Mrs. Sims.

Carrie Mae Sims stood about four feet ten inches tall, but she ran a tight ship.  Her husband had passed away years before, and she lived alone in an immaculate little house on North Prescott Street, just off Walnut Grove Road.  She had arthritis and often had trouble walking, so a lady came to her house several days a week to help with routine chores.  Her beautifully decorated living room, replete with oriental rugs and sculptures of famous composers, was home to the upright "training" piano and a gorgeous black Steinway baby grand with matte finish ivory keys.  Piano recitals were held twice a year, during the winter at Mrs. Sims' house, and in the spring at the Beethoven Club, a midtown performing arts venue housed in a beautifully restored home on Peabody Avenue.

I remember that one day, not too long after I'd started lessons, I decided I'd had enough and told my parents that I wanted to quit playing piano.  My mother, having done all the legwork to get me started, told me that I would have to call Mrs. Sims myself to resign, so that evening, with my stomach in knots, I called her.  She was understanding, and she told me that ultimately, quitting would have to be my decision.  I told her that it was, and then a week later, having experienced severe musical withdrawal, I called her and asked humbly if I could start again.  I never looked back.

Preparing for a recital was a big deal -- it required months of practice in order not only to perform the piece accurately, but as we got older, to add a level of interpretation in order to produce a more finished, polished work.  Mrs. Sims could be tough, yet she was always encouraging, especially when we played our best and added those special touches.  She might chastise me for using too much damper pedal, falling behind the pace of the metronome, or not curving my fingers enough, but she would also compliment me on my interpretation of Chopin.  Sometimes, during a late afternoon lesson, I would catch her drifting off to sleep as I played some prelude or nocturne.

Each year, eight to ten of Mrs. Sims' students were expected to participate in "The Guild", an organization formally known as the National Fraternity of Student Musicians.  During the course of a year, we had to memorize ten pieces, be able to transpose a piece (change it from one key to another), and be able to sight read, that is, play a piece that we had never seen before.  Each year in May, we performed our pieces from memory, produced our transpositions, and sight read a piece one-on-one for a judge, who then scored us on a 100-point scale.  Mrs. Sims had to have a certain percentage of students reach above 95% in order to maintain professional accreditation with the Guild's parent organization, so the pressure was always on.  I did this for approximately five or six years, up until the time I was a senior in high school.  I remember the relief when the judging was complete and how that always gave me a ticket to enjoy the rest of the summer.

As the years progressed, I picked up more instruments, and having a background in piano definitely helped in that regard.  My first foray outside piano was the guitar, which I started playing when I was eleven.  My Aunt Ruth came through town from California with her guitar at Thanksgiving, and on the first evening of her visit, I asked her to show me a few chords.  I was instantly hooked.  My parents gave me my own guitar for Christmas that year, with the understanding that I was to keep up with piano, and several days later, I bought a Mel Bay guitar book and started teaching myself to play.  Before long, I found myself in my first band, a group of sixth graders known as the Fantastic Four.  Junior high brought the trumpet, and in high school, I picked up the French horn.  I was always playing something, and when I was sixteen, I started playing guitar in a band that accompanied a group at my church known as the One Way Singers.  That period was to become one of the happiest times of my life.

When I eventually headed off to college at Northwestern, I knew I would be missing home, so I packed my "portable friend", my acoustic guitar.  On the afternoon that I moved into my dorm, a tall guy with a red afro in the room across the hall saw me walking in and said, "Hey, wanna pick some tunes?"  That broke the ice, and pick tunes we did.  Clay and I spent countless hours playing the likes of B.W. Stevenson and Dan Fogelberg, and before long, we'd found a few other musicians who would stop by and jam with us after we'd finished studying (or sometimes before we'd started).

I am so thankful for music.  Over the years, it has brought me self-confidence, inspiration, camaraderie, and some of the deepest feelings I have ever experienced.  It has been one of the most important influences in my life, and I think that truly, I owe much of that to those early days with Mrs. Sims.  Her dedication to the appreciation of music and to performing it well set an example which I have always tried to follow.

The second movement of that Khachaturian 1959 sonatina ends with an ethereal, pianissimo F sharp, played up toward the end of the keyboard, an octave above the staff.  I can still hear that note echoing in my memory, and it is supremely beautiful.  Every time it comes back to me, I think of Carrie Mae and the house on Prescott.  And if I sit very still, it seems that I can even hear the tick-tock of the metronome, sitting on the corner of that old upright piano.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Ringing in the Fourth

Kyle Davis rang his backyard dinner bell every Fourth of July at noon.  It's not that it couldn't be rung at any other time, but on the Fourth, its hallmark clang reminded everyone in our general area that we had something to be celebrating.

Kyle lived next door and was the renaissance man of our Memphis neighborhood before we actually even knew what that term meant.  Employed by the Tennessee Department of Conservation, he would ride a city bus to work downtown and back every day, and on his short walks to and from the bus stops, Kyle had a unique penchant for picking up curious items that he might find lying along his path.  Sometimes that might amount to a handful of nuts and bolts or some random machine part, but fairly regularly, he would find some object that he couldn't identify.  He would approach me in the afternoon and bring out the item, asking if I knew what it was.  More often than not, I had no idea, but I found his endless curiosity fascinating.

The best find that Kyle ever brought back to his house was a lawnmower chassis from which the engine (and all related parts) had been stripped.  His wife Kitty hounded him relentlessly about putting the mower in the trash, but he couldn't bring himself to do it -- it was as if he'd discovered the mother lode of abandoned junk, and he wanted to preserve it.  Finally, one day, he took the mower remains to the curb, hung a pair of old boxer shorts over the handle, and placed a sign beside the mower, offering it to any taker with the stipulation that it was only to be used for cutting fescue.  It was a trademark Kyle move.

Kyle and Kitty had built a beautiful den as an extension to their original home, and it was here that Kyle displayed some of his more notable treasures.  One that I remember in particular was a mastodon tooth, which he had placed prominently on the fireplace hearth.  Kyle prided in showing off his den to visitors, and I would always tell people in advance about the tooth, so that when Kyle showed it and asked if they knew what it was, they would have an answer at the ready.  This was a joke between us all through the years.

One summer, his son Bob convinced Kyle to replace the old family car with a fire engine red 1966 Pontiac GTO.  Sometimes, if Kyle was driving to work and the weather was nasty, he would offer me a ride.  The looks I would get wheeling up to the school in this car were priceless -- I'd be good for the whole day.  Kyle was meticulous about caring for his home and possessions, and the car was no exception.  I do not ever remember seeing any dirt anywhere on its surface -- it simply gleamed.  We used to enjoy the irony of the oldest couple on the block having the coolest car.

We lived through many experiences together, both good and bad.  On a chilly weekend afternoon in November of 1963, I was watching television as Lee Harvey Oswald was being escorted from the basement of the Dallas police headquarters to a county jail.  Suddenly, from out of the crowd, Jack Ruby appeared and shot Oswald to death.  I ran outside and told Kyle, who was working in his yard.  That weekend, which had begun with the assassination of John F. Kennedy on a stormy Friday, is etched forever in my mind, and in those pre-Internet days, when something big would happen, we would always check with the neighbors to see if they'd heard the news.  I'll never forget that day and Kyle's shocked expression.

But life in the neighborhood was typically tranquil, and Kyle and I had many good times together through the years.  When I would come home from college, he was always one of the first people to check in with me to see how things were going.  In some subtle way, he was an inspiration to me -- I think it had to do with his curiosity about the world outside his own domain and his willingness to talk to anyone and everyone about those interests.  For whatever reason, it made an impression on me, and every year on the Fourth of July, I remember my kind, spirited neighbor, pulling the long white rope to ring his dinner bell.

Happy Fourth to you all.