When I begin a new year, I always remember Virginia Taylor. Like many students, I knew Virginia for a period of years, and then she moved on. I heard from her only one time after she “graduated”, when she wrote an extremely nice letter to my Dean, extolling my virtues (such as they are). However, in my first meeting with Virginia, “my virtues” were still on summer vacation.
I was in my studio, practicing up a storm; and the knock came at my door. I have to admit that when I’m deep into my own mind, I have great difficulty changing gears, and talking to a real human. I schedule a little time in between my practicing and lessons, so I can be totally focused on the student for their lesson. When I’m interrupted, God only knows how I appear to the person at the door; probably not very virtuous.
Virginia was standing there; being used to late teens and early twenty-somethings in a college setting, I wasn’t prepared for the seventy year old lady confronting me. Big smile, extended hand; I just stared, at a loss. It was early August, and I was used to having the music building almost to myself. Roaring through the Liszt Sonata in B Minor, limbs flailing, and heart soaring. After all, that was one of my life’s dreams, to play the Liszt that had appeared so intimidating when I was in school.
“I just retired from 35 years of teaching over in Simsboro, and I promised myself piano lessons. I’ve heard you take new students”. Virginia even knew about the new Louisiana law that gave senior citizens the right to take any college course for $10 per quarter. She needed my permission on her registration. I didn’t tell her “no”, but I’m sure it was obvious that I was talking all around her idea, not addressing her promise to herself. I had explained all about the requirements, the juries (performances students were required to give to piano faculty); she just nodded. She seemed really nice, an intelligent lady who had taught for over three decades, so I signed.
When we got started, I discovered that mostly she had played hymns in her Baptist Sunday School; she couldn’t read very well, and her technique looked to be mostly self-taught. I thought her chances were pretty dim. But I didn’t know Virginia. She cut her fingernails; she learned and practiced her scales; she attended my performance classes, and… she cried in her lesson before it was time for her to perform for the other students. She was so scared, and she really had done every other thing I asked.
By the end of the first school year, Virginia was playing in Performance Class; she had played on Recital Hour for the whole student body of music majors. I still had not required a jury of her, but it was time for her to take a jury, or she wouldn’t be admitted to the next level of piano. So, we prepared, and she decided that it might just work.
It was about then that she asked if I would come to her senior group at church, to perform for them. I had heard about that group. They were all retired, and their butts never saw the seat of a rocking chair! They were a group focused on keeping the bodies and brains of seniors engaged. I loved that! I knew I’d perform for them. But, I had a (almost virtuous) thought. “Virginia,” I said. “I’ll play for your group, if you will.” We worked up a short program of literature she had mastered over the past year. We even decided to do a duet together for her group.
Virginia did so well! It was just the right balance of friend and the offering of her talent, and her hard work, and the determination the she had. I realized that she never would have been there if it had been up to me. That was probably not the first time I learned from one of my students, but…I still think of Virginia when I begin again, every fall.