Thursday, August 19, 2010

Piano Lessons

It began the summer I turned twelve years old. My good friend, Doug Godwin, got a new piano that summer. Actually it was an old piano -- an old upright whose age was difficult to determine. It sounded a lot like one of those pianos you hear in old Western movies in the saloon scenes. Doug and I had been friends forever and spent hours each day playing baseball. He played second base while I played shortstop which we would continue to do until we were graduated from high school.
I could not believe that Doug's parents had bought this piano. I had no idea that Doug had any love at all for music. He was never in the band and I just could not comprehend that he was going to learn how to play the piano.

However, as I would walk down the street to ask him to play baseball with me I would hear the piano music emanating from his home. His mother would invite me in and there was Doug with a couple of new piano books just playing away and seeming to have so much fun. The jealousy bug bit me hard and I just knew that if I were to ever hope to be as happy as Doug I too must learn how to play the piano.

We already had an old upright piano much like Doug's in our home. My mom played a little bit but none of us boys had ever learned. With visions of how wonderful it would be to be able to play the piano I approached my mother and asked her if I could take piano lessons. She asked me if I knew where the piano teacher lived and I told her that I did. She said if I wanted to take lessons to go ask the piano teacher if she would teach me. She said that if the teacher agreed that it would be fine with her and I could begin to learn how to play the piano.

The piano teacher in Ruth, Nevada was a lady by the name of Mrs. Shartle. She was in her late '60s and of course to me seemed ancient. She was a tall woman with gray hair and I can still remember her beautiful hands. She had long strong fingers that had undoubtedly been developed from years of playing the piano. She had graduated from the Boston Conservatory of Music and was an incredible piano teacher. I did not know any of this the day I went to her home for the first time. She had been married to a mining engineer who had come to Nevada to work in the mines. They had not been in Ruth long before he died. She however, had fallen in love with Nevada and decided to stay there for the rest of her life.

She lived on Number Nine Hill in a little wooden frame house. It was a company house; very small with a living room, kitchen, and I believe only one bedroom. Number Nine Hill was the tallest hill in Ruth. It was directly across from the Star Pointer Mine, the original underground copper mine that had brought people to Ruth, Nevada. It continued to be worked, but the open pit mine, several miles away was the major operation and the reason that Ruth continued to exist as a town. Number Nine Hill was terraced and contained homes on each level. Mrs. Shartle's home was on the uppermost terrace.

That hot summer day I jumped on my bike and rode as fast as I could to her home. Her Hill was so steep that I ended up having to push my bike the last 50 yards or so to her front door. I knocked on the door and she invited me in. Dominating that little living room was the most beautiful piano I had ever seen. It was a big, black Chikering upright. I would learn to appreciate the fact that it was one of the most superior pianos ever manufactured. It had a gorgeous sound to it. It was the best piano in Ruth and probably the best and most expensive piece of furniture in any of the homes in that little mining town. She put me at ease and I asked her if she would give me piano lessons. She wanted to know if my mother knew I was there and when I told her yes she agreed to teach me. She knew my oldest brother, Allen, having taught him voice lessons some years before. She sat me right down and gave me my first lesson. She gave me several new books that I recognized were very similar to those possessed by Doug Godwin. I can still remember how exhilarated I was riding my bike home and showing my books to my mother.

I immediately sat down at the piano and began to practice the assigned lesson. It was really fun that first-day. As the week progressed however, I began to discover that this playing the piano was a lot more work than fun. I would be practicing the piano when my friends would come by to get me to go play baseball. My mother thought I should get my practicing in before going out to play. With my baseball mitt sitting on the piano bench at my side, and my baseball bat leaning up against the piano, I would put in my time and when the alarm went off on the clock I had set I would be out of the house in a heartbeat.
By the end of the week, and before my second lesson, I approached my mom and told her that maybe I really didn't want to learn how to play the piano after all and could I quit? She looked me in the eyes and said. "Jack, did I ask you to take piano lessons?" I said, "No." She continued, "Now that you have begun you are not going to quit." "But mom, how long do I have to play the piano?" And then I heard the most important word I would ever hear as a young man -- "Forever", she responded. With that statement my fate was sealed. Mom was pretty tough. I can still remember her standing over me while I practiced, counting and making sure I was hitting the right notes. I never got by with any halfhearted practice sessions. If she were to go on a vacation for a week or so visiting her mother or sisters I knew that when she got back I would have to give her a concert and she would know whether I had been faithful in my practicing. Doug Godwin got tired of the piano within the month and quit.

Mrs. Shartle continued to give me lessons until I was about a junior in high school. After the first year with her she made an arrangement with me that if I would chop her wood for her each week after my lesson that she would give me my lessons at no charge. During the subsequent years she would give me a lesson and I would go out in HTL that back and chop enough wood for her to last a week. The only source of heat in her house was an old wood-burning stove in her tiny kitchen, which burned a lot of wood. She would come out and visit with me while I worked. As a boy I didn't realize how lonely she must have been, but she would talk to me for what seemed like hours. I enjoyed her and she inspired me to actually want to learn how to play the piano.

Maybe because of my clarinet playing and familiarity with music, and because I was twelve years old, I progressed very rapidly. It wasn't long before I really began to enjoy playing because I was able to play good music. I became self-motivated and my mother did not have to stand over me while I practiced. At age 14 or 15, I became the ward organist.

I don't know what happened to Mrs. Shartle. She either died or moved away from Ruth. My memory is a little sketchy, but I think she passed away. I had a succession of teachers after Mrs. Shartle, but none of them could compare to her. I went on to BYU and took piano lessons there until I left on my mission. When I entered the mission field I could play for several hours by memory the beautiful music I had memorized at BYU. What a blessing it was to be able to play the piano as a missionary. I played solos; I accompanied others while they sang, and played for every meeting in every branch to which I was assigned.
I never became a great concert pianist of course, but through the piano I gained self-discipline and a deeper love for good music. I will be forever grateful to a strong mother who said to a young boy that he would have to practice the piano "forever"!


1 comment:

Dolly said...

Loved this post Brother Rushton! I'm sure you long to play the piano even today. I also had piano lessons-but only because the "boy next door" was taking them...and I wanted to watch his every move:) My son, Nascar now wants to learn (he's sixteen). I've told him it's never too late. I'll be looking for a teacher this week:)