04 September 2013

The Wall of Prayer

Just returned from teaching two new piano students, a brother and sister who rode into Holly Springs with their mother from their trailer home in the next county. Originally, the plan was for me to drive to their home, twice a month, and teach the 10-year-old daughter there. The children are home-schooled by their mother. The little girl started piano lessons with Mom at age 6 and, according to Mom, "I've taught her everything I know. I can't go no further."

Scheduling had required two telephone calls. After what I'll call an "exploratory" conversation, Mrs. W said she'd have to check with her husband and get his permission to proceed She called back two days later and we set a start date for 4 weeks from that day.

They live in a remote rural location on a road with no sign that's called by two different names. I drove out yesterday in advance of the first lesson just to get my bearings. When I discovered it was an hour and a half round trip, I called to say I was sorry but the drive was longer than I realized; I would not be able to teach in their home.There was no answer when I called so I left a message.

Mrs. W called back a few minutes later. Though she had been unquestionably resistant to the idea of driving into Holly Springs for the lessons during our initial conversation -- intimidated by the distance as well as "coming into town," stating that they usually "try to stay close to home" --- she now expressed a commitment to her daughter's continued piano study and a willingness to come to Christ Church where I teach. She also asked if her son could study since they were driving "all that way" and I agreed to teach him.

They reached the church early. I was still in session with another student when they knocked on the back door of the church. I wish I had a photo of their faces when I opened the door. My impression of her and their home, from our phone conversations, was rough. Rustic. Back woods. "Hillbilly" came to mind. Two or three dogs barked incessantly during each of our conversations. My gut said she had no idea I was black. Their faces this morning confirmed that suspicion. Three shocked-but-not-frightened expressions on three slightly dirty white faces. Only the boy's face offered a modicum of humor or goodwill. The smell of them made me glad I'd decided not to teach in their home.

I asked if they could wait outside until I finished the current lesson. Though mildly incoherent, Mrs. W agreed they would sit on the shaded concrete steps until I called them in. I fully expected them to be gone when I returned but was pleased they did not run away.

Findings:  Not surprisingly, though they've studied in tandem for four years, the girl has greater technical proficiency than her brother. Her playing is stilted, mechanical, unimaginative and unemotional. Her posture is good. Her hand position is outlandish, the fingers effecting strange contortions and "flying" in unnecessary motions when she plays. She speaks only with repeated promptings from me, proffering one-word responses. She seemed either tired or sick or sullen. Her longest oral response -- and the only ignition of light in her -- occurred when I asked what else she loved besides music. "Horses. I'm more of an animal person," she said.

The boy is not technically proficient but plays with more heart. He also plays a little by ear. He is two years older than the girl. He responded "Yes, Ma'am" consistently throughout the lesson and responded in full sentences when asked a question. He smiled often, laughed at my corny jokes. He is a ready and willing student.

The boy possesses a greater innate sense of rhythm. The girl is better at reading music.

At the beginning of our time together, I informed Mrs. W that I prefer to teach one student at a time, in private and, though it was alright today for everyone to stay in the room, next lesson it would be only me and the student during the 45-minutes lesson. Her face registered dismay but she said nothing.   At the end of the lessons, she explained that her husband would not permit her to leave her daughter alone with me but she would inquire about the son. Reluctantly, I agreed to respect her wishes (she had spoken two or three times on behalf of her quiet daughter during the lesson) and suggested that she sit in the furthest pew during the next lessons. She agreed.

They brought a large stack of music with them:  three-ring binders holding photocopied sheets as well as standard bound books. 98% of it was "church music," e.g, simplified arrangements of "What A Friend We Have in Jesus," "Sweet Hour of Prayer," and, the piece the daughter is currently working to learn, "The Wall of Prayer."


The dominant notion on my mind after meeting the W family is "the disadvantages of isolation." Meeting them feels like the next chapter in the "foreign cultures" curriculum that began when I moved to Mississippi. I am about to learn first hand about a people I've only read about.

I believe in Love. I believe in Music. I believe in the power of Music.

Unfamiliar with "The Wall of Prayer" and taking another stab at "explaining" to the students a comment they found baffling -- "When we play music from our heart, it touches the hearts of those who listen" -- I sat at the piano and sight read the piece. As the final notes faded in the vaulted ceiling of the church, Mrs. W spoke into the silence, "I love that song so much..." with evident emotion in her voice. I turned to the boy and said "I played the music from my heart and your mother felt it in her heart. I want to teach you to play in a way that touches your mother the way she was just now." I still don't think he fully comprehends but there was something in his face that suggested the beginning of understanding.