Growing up my family sang together. For a year we toured the states of Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky, singing at churches, parties, supper clubs. We even made one of those vinyl cylinder’s called a record. It was quite the experience for a 10 year old west coast girl. The experience included culture shock, learning about different kinds of music, the racial issues that plagued even the churches back in that part of the world, especially during the mid-seventies, and a number of other quirky things like chili dogs with cole slaw and mustard, and downhome bbq sandwiches, also with slaw. Pimento cheese sandwiches were also strange to me, but I digress.
Music has always been a part of my life. When I was in Kindergarten I came home from school and sat down at the piano in our living room. There was a song that we had learned to sing, “Mother’s Making Ginger Bread”, a simple song, and I picked out the notes and played it. My dad, an outstanding pianist, decided it was time for me to begin lessons.
Piano came easy to me. I didn’t practice much, because I could just read the music and play it, first time out. It was definitely a gift, but somewhere along the way my good ear became secondary and the notes became the primary thing.
I don’t think I’ve learned anything technically since the eighth grade. Robin Riggers, in Lewiston, Idaho was my piano teacher and she had studied in Paris, a junior high girl’s dream. She was good…really good, and of course, in my young mind it was all due to Paris. I don’t know what school she went to, but I do know she was there on a college fellowship, so like I said, a top notch, crème de la crème teacher.
This fabulous lady won my respect and admiration, and I learned so much from her. When I think about what I could play in the seventh grade, it kind of blows my mind. I had no idea how good I was then. What I lacked was confidence. I would completely blank out at recitals and always ended up in tears. My whole life this was a problem. My hands would shake, I felt the urge to throw up, and my entire body was doused with sweat. It was awful.
One year, Robin took me to the hall where our recital was to be and sat me down at a gorgeous grand piano. There she said to me, “Debbie, remember this, you are the expert on this piece. You are the one who has studied it, and practiced it and worked on it. You know this piece better than I do, better than your father does, better than anyone else in this room will.” And…I believed her.
It was the first recital that I didn’t choke, didn’t leave crying, played my heart out, and it was perfect. Was I nervous? Yes, but she believed I could do it, so I believed I could do it.
In college I was awarded a scholarship for singing and for my piano skills. I was in the elite chorale and sometimes accompanied them and the concert choir. I earned money playing for musicals, weddings, churches and choirs.
For awhile, I taught piano and for two years I led a homeschool choir. The homeschool choir was beautiful…and it was hard. I did it for two years and then had to give it up. I explained to the parents that it was because of my vision.
I don’t know for sure that they didn’t believe me, but it felt like they didn’t. After all I could still drive, I still homeschooled my kids, I looked fine. But, I wasn’t fine.
In the world of retinas there’s a thing called an Amsler Grid. It’s just a basic grid with equal distances between squares on white paper with black ink. (You can check it out for yourself here: http://retinaleyecare.com/amsler.cfm). A person with normal vision sees straight lines, but sometimes I see bending lines, sometimes there are parts of lines missing in lots of places. Sometimes the lines look like sausage links hooked together or braids. It’s weird I know.
If you’ve ever read music, you can imagine the difficulty this would present in trying to read notes on a bending line or a row of sausage links. If the line shifts, it’s a different note. I’ve also had a lot of trouble distinguishing between sharps and naturals. Sometimes they look very similar to me.
I love music. It’s a part of me. I miss reading music well. I miss the luxury of being able to sit down and play something the very first time because I can read the notes perfectly. I miss it very much.
The thing is though, I’m learning again. I’m learning to go back to my five year old self who came home from school and could just play the tune because she heard it.
Instead of leading the music at church, which I used to do, I now sing with a group of other people who play using only chords (no written music). It’s been a challenge for me to sing parts without notes because I’m not used to it any more. I’m pretty good at playing chords now too, which I began before my vision went too far south. It’s not my strongest skill, notes are, but I do alright.
In another sense I’m happy though. I’m happy because while I can’t always play the technically difficult pieces that I used to (there are days here and there when I can, sometimes a few weeks), as long as my ears work, I can still sing, I can still play.
The joy is still there. I love to listen. In fact, I listen more closely now than I ever did. I pay a lot closer attention to the details.
Even if my vision goes, I am so thankful that I have my music. I don’t have to see to be a part of it. The music doesn’t stop unless I do. And do you think I’m gonna do that? I don’t think so!