Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Accompanist

As I sat down to write about the woman pictured above, I heard Garrison Keillor's voice, the way he reads for the noon "Writer's Almanac" program. . . ."Today is the birthday of . . . ." and had the thought that her life could never be fit into that short blurb given for the writers Keillor acknowledges--and I know that her life cannot be adequately described and appreciated here by me, either.

And yet today I feel compelled to write. I have wanted to write about her since her death on October 20 this past fall. It was impossible at the time, because I was severely pressed for time, and also because I had no tranquility to temper the emotion I felt; I needed some distance for recollection. Now I have the time, and I have had some time, and I will try.

And so . . . . Today is the birthday of Neva Jane Cram White, known to me first as Mrs. White and later as Mama Neva. She would have turned 78 today.

I'm not sure when I first became aware of her presence in the town I grew up in, but I know that by seventh or eighth grade, I was convinced that she was the best piano teacher in town. Her students just seemed to play a notch above the rest of us, at least several of them.

Once I turned pages for a friend who took lessons from her. Mrs. White's house had the largest living room I had ever seen, large enough for her long Baldwin grand piano, for a full set of furniture, for ample space around the furniture and piano, and for a few steps that went up into the dining room, where all the students, along with their page turners, stood and waited their turns. The "backstage."

It's ironic that this is my earliest clear memory of this remarkable woman; the irony will become clear as you read on. On that evening, being the shy wallflower that I was back then, I was standing, you guessed it, against the wall, by the door that went into the kitchen. I was trying to be invisible, as I felt intimidated by the mostly-older kids around me--her amazing, talented students.

It was an evening recital, and the lights in the living room had been turned out, except for around the piano, so there was kind of spotlight effect. The light in the dining room was off. Until it suddenly wasn't. It came on, out of nowhere, and I remember Mrs. White, this woman with the long piano and the huge living room and the competition-winning piano students, walking into the room with a perturbed look on her face, to figure out what was going on and why the light had come on. The way I recall it, she had a stern look, and back in those days a stern look from any adult was enough to make my heart race. My heart raced faster when it was discovered that I was the cause of the light coming on! I was leaning in such a way that I'd pushed the dimmer switch and not even been aware of it!

I must have gone into a mild state of shock, because I really don't remember anything after that. I wouldn't be surprised if I teared up, because I felt like I had ruined her beautiful recital. I also wouldn't be surprised if she assured me everything was okay, that it wasn't that big a deal....but I really don't remember. I do remember thinking, "She'll never want to have me as a student now!" (Yes, I fell prey to catastrophic thinking even more back then than I do now.)

Somehow I gathered the courage a year or two later, though, to inquire. And she did take me. I started with her in the fall of ninth grade and stayed with her for four years. Four years that changed my life.

One of the first pieces I played that year was this nocturne by John Field. She chose it because I wanted to play Chopin but wasn't ready to play the pieces that I was attracted to. Field's nocturne has some style similarities to Chopin's and is not quite so demanding! I fell in love with this piece, and it wasn't long before I came to love Mrs. White.

She was in fact an excellent piano teacher. She had actually studied organ and voice in college and then went to Eastman on a voice scholarship . And she did have a beautiful voice. Later on, she taught voice lessons at the university along with piano.

But what happened at Eastman, according to her obituary, gives my post its title: "While there, her piano accompaniment ability was discovered, and she began to develop what came to be perhaps her greatest musical talent. She later was recognized by the National Association of Teachers of Singing with the Brotherton award as an outstanding accompanist." Who even knew that awards were given for accompanists? Obviously they are, and certainly should be, but I didn't realize they were, until she died.

Her excellence as a piano teacher had a huge influence on my life that has lasted for years. But her giftedness as an accompanist will last throughout my life, even if I lose the ability to play piano completely.

She accompanied me through those four years of my life like no one else could have. Those years were tumultuous in ways I won't go into here, because this is about her and not me. Suffice it to say that those four years were among the hardest of my life. As I look back at my decision to screw up my courage and ask her to take me as a student--despite my shyness, despite my uncertainty about paying for it, and despite what happened at that recital--and see what a gift she became to me, I wonder at the grace of it all, and I wonder if some Holy Spirit prompting had not been behind the strong determination I had to become her student.

She was perhaps the gentlest person I had ever known. Her voice was gentle, her teaching style was gentle, her corrections came gently. Of course she taught me how to play the keys gently and firmly--a challenge, since the piano I practiced on at home had nothing like the action of hers.

And like any good musician, she knew how to listen. I have no idea how it began. Perhaps I burst into tears at some point in a lesson, I don't know. I just know that before long, our time together was divided between musical instruction and life instruction. She would listen to me, comfort me, encourage me, sometimes hold me when I probably seemed likely to fall apart otherwise. My overall memory of piano lessons in those years is of sitting at the piano together with music in front of us always, but much more than music going on.

At some point, the money I had saved up for lessons was all gone, and I thought, with great sadness, that would be the end of it. But, no, she insisted that she would continue to teach me in exchange for my continuing to work as hard as I already did. Since her death, it has become known that she taught several of us at no charge--a minister's daughter, a friend whose widowed mother died, another friend whose single mom struggled to make ends meet. Back then, none of us told the others, but at her funeral and on Facebook, the stories came out. She was a generous as she was gentle.

Another sign of her generosity was that at some point she decided to move my lesson time so that I would always come last in her day, so that there would be time for both the lesson and for whatever else might need to be "worked on." She also provided music for me. I had several books from the set pictured above, but I really didn't have a way to make money to pay for more. Since the set didn't have much in the way of modern music, and modern pieces were sometimes required for the competitions I eventually entered, she took care of that.

When it was time to graduate and go to college, she felt it was best for me to try a new teacher, just to get a different perspective and have a fresh set of ears to hear me. So I did move to another teacher, though we continued to meet in her office (she began teaching at university the same year that I began, as I recall.)

One year I actually took her accompaniment class for credit. (I started out a music major but figured out that I didn't want to teach in a school system and wasn't likely to become a performer, so I switched majors but continued to do as much musically as I could.)

Well, Blogger has decided now that it will rotate pictures I am trying to post.....and it is getting late, and as I thought, there is no way to fit this all into one blog post. I guess it will have to be a mini-series. For now, I will share a poem I came across recently, and I'll come back for the continuation.

The Accompanist

By Dick Allen

I’ve always worried about you—the man or woman
at the piano bench,
night after night receiving only such applause
as the singer allows: a warm hand please,
for my accompanist. At concerts,
as I watch your fingers on the keys,
and how swiftly, how excellently
you turn sheet music pages,
track the singer’s notes, cover the singer’s flaws,
I worry about whole lifetimes,
most lifetimes
lived in the shadows of reflected fame;
but then the singer’s voice dies
and there are just your last piano notes,
not resentful at all,
carrying us to the end, into those heartfelt cheers
that spring up in little patches from a thrilled audience
like sudden wildflowers bobbing in a rain
of steady clapping. And I’m on my feet, also,
clapping and cheering for the singer, yes,
but, I think, partially likewise for you
half-turned toward us, balanced on your black bench,
modest, utterly well-rehearsed,
still playing the part you’ve made yours.


Linda K said...

Sheila, thank you for writing this about Mrs. White. I, too, knew her as a piano teacher, but as I had little talent, only lasted a couple of years--very pleasant ones, as her gentle kindness did the best she could with what I had. I knew her best from several years serving as her babysitter of choice--a role I loved and felt very privileged to hold. I not only got to know her and Dr. White, but also the kids, which made me feel sort of like part of the family--a cousin or something. Mark was old enough that I was pretty superfluous, so for him, I was just the one who kept the other boys (David and Jonathan were about 3 to 6 or 7 during those years) out of his hair. They were brilliant even then and knew more about dinosaurs then than I will EVER know. Very cute. And intimidating, as only brilliant little boys can be. Laura was this adorable little girl, beautiful and smart and very well-behaved--a babysitter's dream child. Plus, she was good company! They were all clearly well=raised. All that to say, the world is a much poorer place without Mrs. White in it, but oh! Heaven's orchestra/choir has gained a priceless treasure.

Anonymous said...

My own experience of Neva -- minimal, in comparison -- is completely corroborated by your poignant, personal expressions of deeper, more intense experiences. She accompanied me in Vaughan Williams and Frackenpohl, I remember, and although I had embarked on a "program" of working with as many different collaborators as time and semesters allowed, I remember her as the best ever. One I returned to. And gentle -- yes.... - Brian

Cindy McMillion said...

This is so very beautiful and poignant. I look forward to your continuation of the story...