In Honor of My First Piano Teacher

In celebration of the month of MAY,

A Tribute to My First Piano Teacher, MAY Johnson

By Sharon Sheppard

The woman who patiently unlocked the puzzle of note-reading for this undisciplined young musician who had learned to play by ear deserves a (posthumous) medal.

The term musician is used very loosely here.  I began playing the piano as a young child on a homemade keyboard drawn out on butcher paper.  With carefully crayoned black keys in sets of twos and threes as markers, I could plunk out the tunes I heard in church each Sunday, though not nearly as intricately as red-haired Caroline Bundy played them.  I sat near the front each week watching with my eyes and listening with my heart as her nimble fingers rippled over the keyboard.  Someday, I determined, I would play like Caroline.

When I got a little more sophisticated, I created an octave of notes by filling drinking glasses with graduated quantities of water.  It was easy to tap out melodies with a spoon.

Then one magical winter day the parents of my dearest childhood friend, Shirley Beggs, hauled in their old upright piano and slid it onto the linoleum floor of our living room.  It was a painful tradeoff as Shirley and her family headed north to accommodate her dad’s railroad transfer to another small Minnesota town.

I lost and gained my best friend that day.

There would never be another friend like Shirley, but the ecstasy of having a real piano in our living room can’t be captured in words.  I played and played each day almost to the point of exhaustion until my dad would finally say, “Time for bed, Sharon.”

Eventually the day came when my parents decided that it was time I learned to read notes, an exciting, but threatening prospect.  I could already play.  Why did I have to learn a whole new system?

Our town of 350 people did not have many piano teachers to choose from, but fortunately, May Johnson lived just two blocks from our house, and she was patient, kind, and long-suffering.  There was so much to know, and I didn’t like all the constraints that note-reading required.

Each Monday after school I’d trudge over to May Johnson’s house two blocks from our own, with a crumpled dollar bill in my pocket.

What difference does it make which finger I use on which key?  It sounds the same no matter which finger plays the note!  If she would just play through the song for me, I could play it on my own without going through the agony of learning the names of the notes.

The worst part was the lousy time signature and having to count out the rhythm.  It was all so tedious.  But eventually it began to make sense to me.  And when she pulled out cardboard boxes of musty-smelling sheet music, my heart thumped.  Sheet music!  And the ability to play a song I had never heard!

May Johnson lifted out sentimental songs from the 1940s by Carrie Jacobs Bond, their covers adorned with pink cabbage roses.  “When you come to the end of a perfect day,” one began, “and you sit alone with your thoughts…”  Sappy, but I was learning to play by note.

It wasn’t long before I was playing one of Carrie Jacobs Bond’s most famous songs at weddings as a 14-year-old pianist: “I Love You Truly…”  Again, sappy, but I could play it. Reading the notes.

Though I eventually graduated to more advanced teachers, minored in music in college, and ultimately taught piano, I’ll always prefer the free-wheeling, no-rules method of making music.  Improvisation.  Jazzed up hymn tunes. Make it up as you go along.

Playing by ear.  Playing by heart.

©Sharon Sheppard, 2016