They bought a piano. My mother found a teacher, Mrs. Briggs. I was off and running. I took lessons from Mrs. Briggs for 10 years.
Mrs. Briggs was well-known in the 1940s, 50s and 60s in Grosse Pointe. Most of her students were kids. She was tough. Demanding. No excuses; no sass; no slacking off.
Mrs. Briggs didn’t just teach piano. She also taught the value of diligent practice, responsible behavior, punctuality; keeping promises; truthfulness, and respect for others. She insisted on good manners.
She taught 50 or 60 students ranging from second-graders to senior high schoolers. (She claimed children were not ready for music lessons until they had learned to read.)
I had two lessons each week. She came to my house for a private lesson of about a half hour or 45 minutes. This was usually in the morning, before school. Then she drove me to school. Sometimes the lesson lasted longer than 45 minutes, as Mrs. Briggs was a talker. She talked and talked. To me, then to my stay-at-home mother, who thought good manners required her to make a brief appearance when the lesson was over, then walk Mrs. Briggs to the door.
I also had an after school class lesson in music theory with about 8 or 9 other kids.
The first day of my first private lesson she gave me a red book filled with black lines and strange marks and lots of black circles with stems like upside down and right side up flowers. It was called Teaching Little Fingers to Play.She opened the book to the inside front cover and told me to place both hands on the blank page. I spread my fingers out and she drew the outline of each hand and numbered the fingers, one through five, one through five.
I began to learn simple songs. At first I used just my right hand with fingers one through five; then just the left hand; then both hands – each one doing different things -- at the same time. I felt so proud and smart.
My weekly one-hour class lesson in music theory was at her studio, which was on the second floor of the Punch & Judy Building. I was in a class with other beginners, but she also had classes for more experienced students, all the way up to seniors in high school.
In class, we learned to identify notes by letter and find them on the piano, to play scales and chords, to beat out different rhythms, to decipher key signatures, master fingering techniques, practice what she called “ear training,” transpose keys, play chords and eventually, to write music.
We even got mini lectures about the lives of famous composers. She included an interesting anecdote about each composer – something that would capture our imagination. Obviously, it worked, as I still remember two composer stories:
- One night, in the middle of the night, Mozart’s father was roused from a sound sleep. Four-year-old Amadeus had sneaked up to the attic in the dark to play the harpsichord. He played beautifully, even though he never had a lesson. Dad recognized musical genius and decided to encourage his son’s talent. Within a year or two, Mozart, a child prodigy, was in demand all over Europe.
- Grumpy, gnarly, snarly ol’ Beethoven gradually lost his hearing as he aged. When he was very old, he was stone deaf. At the conclusion of the premiere performance of his Ninth Symphony, which he personally conducted, one of the singers had to place her hands on Ludwig’s shoulders and turn him around to face the cheering, clapping audience, which had risen and was giving him a standing ovation.
Mrs. Briggs had two pianos in her studio. One was the biggest, blackest grand piano I had ever seen. The other was an upright taller than I was. She had several blackboards, lots of chalk in different colors and an ingenious device made of wood and wire that enabled her to draw five straight chalk lines at the same time – the music staff – across the entire blackboard – whoosh, just like that.
We sat at pushed-together card tables in a semicircle in front of the blackboards. At each kid’s place was a large plastic card-table-size replica of a musical staff. We each had a box of large black plastic notes (half notes, quarter notes, eighth notes, etc.) and stacks of sharps and flats and naturals and lines and dots, as well as treble and bass clefs.
Learning music theory was fun because she made it competitive. During class, we earned points for each task we completed without error. The person with the most points at the end of the class got to pick a prize from the prize box.
If we were learning to play the F major scale, for instance, we’d surround the piano bench (no pushing, no jostling, no talking) and each kid took a turn playing the scale. If he played it without a mistake – perfectly -- without repeating a note -- without forgetting the B flat – with the correct fingering, he got to go to the blackboard and put a point next to his name. If I played a B-flat diminished seventh chord correctly on the first try, or placed the E major key signature, (four sharps) on the correct lines on my card table musical staff, I got a point. Mrs. Briggs’ points were the Frequent Flyer miles of my childhood.
We were required to behave and take turns and be polite. No gum chewing; no dirty hands or fingernails; no unnecessary talking or bullying allowed. But during the last five or 10 minutes of each class we were permitted a bit of rowdiness. Each session ended with a boisterous contest to name the correct notes on Mrs. Briggs’s flash cards.
She had a stack of large cardboard squares, each showing either the treble or bass clef on its staff, and a note. She’d hold up one card at a time and the first kid to call out the correct note would get the card and could stack it in front of him on his table.
To add to the fun, she tossed the cards to the winner with a wrist-generated flip in the air toward the victor. She had spot-on aim and we learned to catch cards midair, sometimes by leaping out of our chairs and grabbing with one hand or by clapping the airborne card between two hands. This game often got rowdy as everybody tried to add points to his or her score and win the prize for that day. We got excited, stood up, leaned forward, jabbed fingers in the air and shouted out answers while vying to be the first to yell out the correct note. When the game was over, the kid with the most cards got points added to his score.
At the end of class, the kid with the most points got to pick something from the prize box. Prizes were trinkets coveted not so much for their monetary value as for the symbolic token of victory. We chose from toys, miniature ceramic animals, whistles, yoyos, toy cars and trucks, jump ropes, games, various baubles and bangles.
Some of the prizes were a cut above trinket-value and required several class wins before you could take them home. Mrs. Briggs kept track of our “saved” wins in a notebook until we had the required number for the upscale prize.
I remember collecting little plastic busts of composers. These were six- or seven-inch tall cream-colored head-and-shoulders representations of musical guys like Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms and Debussy. I eventually collected them all and displayed them on a shelf in my bedroom.
How geeky was that?
Every six weeks everyone had to play in a recital. Our piece had to be memorized. No sheet music allowed. These programs were on Saturday afternoons and were a Big Deal. We were expected to get dressed up. I often got a new dress or new shoes just because a recital was on the calendar. The boys wore dressy pants, white shirts and some even wore ties. Our parents and siblings were invited and we could also invite friends and other relatives if we wished.
The studio’s card tables were put away and rows of chairs were lined up – one area for the performers; another for guests. The students were expected to sit up straight, pay attention, clap after each performer, and NOT talk. If Mrs. Briggs caught you talking or giggling, she stopped everything – actually paused the program in front of everybody – and gave you The Look.
Forty or 50 people attended these recitals. Most were parents and family members. Everyone got a mimeographed program with each kid’s name and the title of the piece he or she was playing. The simplest pieces were at the beginning and pieces got more and more difficult as the program progressed. The best and most difficult pieces were at the end.
My first recital performance was “From a Wigwam,” the last song in Teaching Little Fingers to Play. I can still play it from memory, 70-plus years later.
For several years, Mrs. Briggs’s star pupil was (believe it or not!) Bob Bashara’s father. He was a big, burly teenager with lots of dark curly hair and big hands. He was very, very good. He loved wowing the crowd with brisk, bouncy, militaristic pieces that showed off his skill. He liked pieces that used the whole piano – bass to tippy-top treble -- and he liked fast, difficult compositions. He could knock off a Chopin Polonaise or the final movement of a Beethoven sonata that inspired younger students and delighted parents. He got lots of applause.
I wanted to learn to play like Bob Bashara’s father. I wanted to be the last one on a recital program one day.