Recently I got an email from my mom telling me that my first piano teacher had died.
“Joy” (name changed) began teaching me piano when I was four years old. She was a teacher at my daycare, which I attended for three years before kindergarten. Joy would often lead sing-alongs around the old upright in the daycare facility. She also hosted small music groups for the daycare kiddies at her house on the weekends. We would play Orff instruments, sing, and learn rhythm games. At daycare and “music classes” alike, us youngsters loved Joy. She was warm and brassy in her songs, hugs and cuddles, and at daycare, I grew to see her as my “mom-away-from-home.” I loved going to her house, which smelled spicy and was full of trinkets. I loved her banana bread, and playing with the other kids.
Joy noticed I was a particularly musical child, and she suggested to my parents that more in-depth musical exposure would be good for me. So when I was four, she began to give me private piano lessons. My parents, neither of them musicians, bought an upright piano and soon, Joy began coming over to my house to give me lessons.
I remember the very first lesson where she taught me how to identify “Middle C” on a keyboard. It was like suddenly teaching someone to read a new alphabet. From that day on, the keyboard has been home to me, a world where I can orient myself. Feeling oriented on a keyboard preceded my ability to recognize words, even some letters, and something I can’t remember life without.
I often hear many horror stories about people’s early-childhood piano lesson experiences. “Task-master” and “wrist-slapper” are some of the ways I’ve heard piano teachers described. It’s often because of negative piano lesson experiences that people might decide to “give up” music altogether.
Thankfully, I was spared this first-piano-teacher experience. Joy taught me to play by ear and encouraged me to improvise. While she taught me the basics of sight-reading, it wasn’t enforced. I remember her scolding me, lovingly, when I would refuse to practice by reading the notes on the page, deferring instead to playing pieces by aural memory. Weeks would go by when I wouldn’t practice the piece at all, busying myself instead with composing little pieces of my own, playing for hours by ear. I would never get in “trouble” for this. At the end of each lesson, she would let us play a rip-roaring “Heart and Soul” duet, she and I taking turns riffing off an improvised solo line.
There are times when I have wished I had more discipline in my early piano lessons, that I might have honed my technique and reading skills sooner. But I’ve always felt grateful that I was nurtured to play at the piano. A great music educator is not only a teacher but a musical steward. They recognize potential in their students and challenge them to cultivate it. They recognize and nurture artistry. I was four years old when Joy became my teacher, but I remember distinctly, even as a four-year-old, feeling like Joy saw the musician in me.
I am no fine keyboardist. I still play with little technique, still mostly by ear. I never studied piano formally beyond a few years of casual lessons with Joy. But piano has always been an extension of my self. I express myself deeply through the piano, write much of my own compositions on piano, and connect emotionally through keyboard with clients in my music therapy practice. It is a voice through which I speak some of my deepest truths.
Joy was my first musical steward. That relationship feels sacred, and in her passing, I feel the connection even stronger. I am sad, thinking of Joy leaving this Earth. She died peacefully, after a full life. Joy taught me piano. Her spirit moves through me every time I play.
Sarah Pearson is a music therapist working in oncology and palliative care in Kitchener, ON . She is the Program Development Coordinator for the Room 217 Foundation and Lead Facilitator of the Music Care Certificate Program.