Janet's Jargon

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Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Famous music makers--and me

From the time I was a very little girl (yes, I really was one--once!), music has been a very important part of my life. I began taking music lessons when I was 4 years old. I cheated. Yup, sure enough, and like usually happens, I got caught before too long. You see, my piano teacher would play the songs for me and I would hurry home and repeat them, just like she had played them. The only problem with that was that one day she skipped a page in my newly assigned song. So, I went home and played it exactly like she had done. When I went to my lesson the next week, she said, "But that's not the way it's written." I argued with her. "It's exactly the way you played it." Well, it didn't take her long to figure out that I was playing everything by ear, so I went home with a "note speller" and a new assignment, one that she didn't play for me.

Now, many years later, I am very thankful that she taught me to read music, but I am equally grateful that I can still play by ear. I often play in church, and if they ask me ahead of time if I know a certain song or chorus, if I don't, I can go to YouTube and find it and after listening to it a couple of times, I can "fake it," just like I did when I was 4 years old.

About 35 years ago my mother decided that it was time for me to have her old piano. She got it (2nd hand) when she was 4 years old; that would have been in 1915. How old it was then is anybody's guess. My parents had put it in the basement when we moved from southern Minnesota to northern Minnesota. There was no problem getting it down the steps, as the stairwell was not yet enclosed. Getting it out? That was quite a different matter. There was no way it would fit. It was a big old upright grand piano. My folks had a little room set off to the side of the house with a low roof on it. There was a coal shoot that opened up and it allowed my dad to shove big logs down to the basement to use in the furnace. He finally took the roof off and raised the piano up with his homemade tractor and hoist. From there it went into a logging truck and headed for our house in Grand Forks, ND, a distance of about 250 miles. The logger didn't even tie it down in the back of the truck. It made it safe and sound, and it didn't even need tuning. In fact, I had it checked by a tuner every 5 years, but it never needed tuning. They just don't make things like they used to!

When I moved to northeast Wisconsin after Ivan (my hubby of 42 years) died, my only regret was that there wasn't room in the U-Haul trailer for my piano. I lamented having to leave it behind almost every day from then on, until...

I was at a historical society meeting and a woman asked me about my piano playing. She said she had seen in the paper that I was going to play at our church's semi-annual community spaghetti feed. I laughed and told her that I didn't know I was playing for it until I read it in the paper too. She asked me how long I'd been playing, etc. and I told her how sad the loss of my piano made me feel. She asked, "Do you want mine?" I was dumbfounded. I asked her how much she wanted for it. She said she would be happy if she could come over and listen to me play sometimes. She had bought the piano new in 1948, but she never learned to play it, and her hands have so much arthritis in them that she couldn't play it now, even if she knew how. So, in a couple of days 4 fellows from our church moved it over and I had it tuned. (Yes, it needed it, but I was delighted to take care of that.) So, to Dorothy Willey, if you see this, THANK YOU--from the bottom of my heart.

There is a local group of widows (we prefer to call ourselves Rain Dancers) who meet once a month. They asked me to play for them, so we met at a church and I gave my very first solo concert. When I asked them how many songs they wanted me to play, they said, "Enough to fill up 30-45 minutes." Who says you are too old to try something new?

In the meantime, along the way, my music has led me to some very interesting and wonderful musical friends. I guess my first "famous" musician would be George Beverly Shea. I was in college in Minneapolis, MN when the Billy Graham Crusade was there. I was in the choir, but Tedd Smith, the usual pianist for the Crusades, got a flu bug. George Beverly Shea needed somebody who could transpose I'd Rather Have Jesus to a key that was low enough for him to sing it. Since I played by ear, I got the job. Tedd Smith recovered before the actual Crusade began, but it was an experience of a lifetime.

When I was a missionary candidate near Philadelphia, my accordian had a leaky bellow, and somebody at a church I attended one Sunday suggested that I ask the musical director, Alfred B. Smith, if he could fix it. I did, he did, and...well, another part of my musical history. He has written hundreds of well known gospel songs. While I was there, I also got to spend an afternoon with Ike and Mamie Eisenhower at their Gettysburg Farm, and I got to play their piano while we all gathered around and sang. But that's fodder for another blog--another day.

More recently, I got acquainted with a wonderful lady, Martha Reed-Garvin. I heard her on her radio program, Musical Memories, and e-mails led to phone calls, and to her son, Brad. Brad is a singer at the Metropolitan Opera Center in New York City. The friendship with Brad began because he had written a wonderful mystery, With the Voice of Angels, and he was looking for help in getting it published. It is now out from Star Publish LLC. He was gracious enough to allow me to sing a couple of Christmas carols with him on my radio program, Marketing for Fun and Profit, aired weekly on http://internetvoicesradio.com .

Another wonderful musician who has crossed my path is Job Christianson. He was a singer on Broadway for several years, but he returned "home" to Grand Forks, ND, after his mother passed away. When Ivan died, he was at the church when I called the pastor to make funeral arrangements. He called back in a couple of minutes and asked if he could sing for Ivan's service. I told him Ivan would be delighted. He sang "He Raised Me Up," a most fitting song, since Ivan had been confined to a wheelchair for 11 years.

My most recent musical experience was when I got to accompany Don Shire, a world acclaimed trumpeter. He is known in Wisconsin as "Wisconsin's own musicionary." He has traveled to many different countries. He allowed me to play How Great Thou Art with him at a recent service at our church. Afterwards, he gave a citywide concert in the local ball park pavilion. Before the concert we were talking and the conversation turned to Bill Pierce, a radio musician who passed away a few months ago. Don said that he had played with Bill Pierce, as well as Huntley Brown and his most recent CD was recorded with the Don Marsh orchestra, so he said, "Since you have played with me and I have played with them, you have played with them by proxy."

Oh, yes, I love the world of music. To see pictures of some of my famous partners in tune, go to my website (http://www.janetelainesmith.com) and click on the page "Making Music" or click on the title at the top of this blog entry.


  • At 10:53 PM, Anonymous JoAnne Bennett said…


    You brought back such fond memories of a daddy I loved dearly who also loved music. At one time, he owned a pipe organ that had been in one of the theaters in San Francisco. Not a night went by that he didn't play his baby grand.

    Each part of the story you told reminded me with a smile of how we couldn't get the refrigerator out of the beach house my grandfather built to your beloved husband's name, Ivan. My father-in-law's name was Ivan and his twin sister's name was Iva.

    I am so impressed with your music abilities. I was adopted and you wouldn't want to hear me even sing in the shower. Great imaginary-having to take off the roof and your piano arriving by log truck was my favorite part. Thanks for sharing!


  • At 6:29 AM, Blogger The Belle in Blue said…

    Janet, your life is such an adventure! You should write a book about it--oh, wait. You did!

  • At 10:02 AM, Blogger JanetElaineSmith said…

    Glad it brought back good memories for you, JoAnne. The scriptures say that we are to "make a joyful noise onto the Lord." It says nothing about staying on key!

    And Joyce, if you ever get it back you can even read it. Like I've said for many years, my life is an open book. Now it really is. Thanks for mentioning Rebel With a Cause (even if you didn't name it).


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