Submitted by Don Doman
When I was a child my mother insisted on purchasing a piano. My dad was against it and he would bring up this expense in arguments throughout their marriage. At the time I didn’t understand what my mother must have gone through to stand up to my father. It wasn’t even a used piano, it was a brand new one. In the early 1950s this Baldwin Acrosonic Spinet piano would have cost about seven hundred dollars. Minimum wage was seventy-five cents an hour and a postage stamp was three cents.
The purchase price of a 1951 Chrysler was $2,628. At the time my mom was working for the Mount Rainier Ordinance Depot at Fort Lewis and then worked for the Boy Scouts in downtown Tacoma. I remember we traded in the 51 Chrysler and then bought a new one in 1953. The cars made pilgrimages from Tacoma back to Nevada, Missouri where my parents grew up and married, and where I was born.
The piano was placed in the living room of our home at 2520 South Ferry. I remember my mother reading me and perhaps playing the classic American cowboy song, When the Work’s All Done This Fall. It was first written as a poem and then later put to music. My mother would play some Chopin études, plus sheet music like Patti Page’s Mockingbird Hill, and Kay Starr’s The Wheel of Fortune.Every once in a while I find myself playing Mockingbird Hill. It’s my own remembrance of Mary Lavinia Doman.
One day it was announced that I was taking piano lessons. I recall no conversation and no discussion about this. With both parents working I was a latchkey kid. My best friends’ mother kept an eye on me from next door making sure I didn’t run completely wild. (“Hah!” – Comment by Peg) My mother came home early from work one afternoon and kicking and screaming I went with her to meet my piano teacher.
I had lessons each week. My Uncle James gave me a 22. single shot rifle when I was in the first grade. My dad hid the bolt, so it wouldn’t fire. As always I would wait to practice until it was almost time to leave for a lesson. I would stop playing cowboys and Indians and sit down at the piano. If you’re a cowboy you should have a real gun. I sat down to play once and leaned my rifle against the piano bench and the rifle slid into the piano. The gunsight left a pyramid shaped indentation in the wood. I ran for the furniture wax and buffed it up. I laughed when I told my mom . . . forty-some years later. She never knew about the incident.
My first teacher died the next year and then my mom found another teacher a few blocks away between home and Stanley Elementary School. The summer before the fifth grade we moved to Lakewood, 9511 Maple Avenue. I thought I was free of piano lessons, but no . . . I was soon taking lessons in the Lakewood Colonial Center. I had to suffer through recitals (playing boogie-woogie), while in the fifth grade at Park Lodge School and the sixth grade at Navy Base. Since I began playing saxophone in the fifth grade I was finally allowed to stop my piano lessons.
The Baldwin Acrosonic made the move from Maple Avenue to Ponders Corner, then to North D Street, and then to North 11th. When my mother died, the piano passed to my daughter Andrea in University Place. She never took piano lessons, but rather tried violin. Later she made her twin daughters take lessons on violin and cello. They were actually, pretty good.
I don’t recall my mother ever playing anything else other than Mockingbird Hill and Wheel of Fortune . . . and Chopin. She eventually found a Chickering square grand piano that supposedly Liberace considered buying. She bought it for me. It moved from North Fife to North Huson and finally to a friend’s house in Bothell. My wife Peg and I have almost always had a piano in our home. When the huge square grand moved out, we bought a baby grand, which sits in our living room. I play for my own amusement and Peg’s. It relaxes me. I rarely play for anyone else. I found out years later that my older son, Del, would sit on the basement stairs and listen to me play.
My mother was cremated. I think my sister Marsha has the ashes, but every once in a while I find myself playing Mockingbird Hill. It’s my own remembrance of Mary Lavinia Doman. I tear up a little bit at the song, but I know I could never make it through the verses of When the Work’s All Done This Fall . . .
“Now when I left my home, boys, my Mother for me cried
She begged me not to go, boys, for me she would have died
My Mother’s heart is breaking
I’ve broken it that’s all
But with God’s help I’ll see her when the work’s all done this fall.”
Wonderful story…..perhaps an experience many of us went through. I was just 4 years old (1950) when my mother decided I needed piano lessons. I didn’t even know the alphabet so had to play the keys by color! She bought me a wonderful old upright piano and since she invested ($$$) in it I was going to have to invest (time) in it and that I did. From then on for the next 10 years I had to endure piano lessons in the classics when all I wanted to do is play rock and roll. Eventually she gave up trying to make me a Van Cliburn out of me and I followed my natural instincts to play anything I heard by ear rather than rely on sheet music. Still playing today as Johnny Crash, The Rockin’ Relic, The Human Jukebox and his Pumpin’ Piano!
Don Doman says
I’m glad you enjoyed the story. I looks like I’m a year older than you. I envy those who can play by ear on all instruments. Luckily I didn’t have to play the classics, but I did appreciate them. My mom had records and I played the sax from fifth through my senior year in high school – both concert band and orchestra. Mostly now I use Fake books and play show tunes, country, pop music, and jazz . . . well any time my fingers don’t work, it becomes jazz. I had a friend in Rotary (early 90s) who fled Austria before Hitler took over. His mother refused to leave. He never saw her or most of his family again. In America he put himself through school (podiatry) by playing in his own little dance band. When I knew him he played the national anthem at meetings. He joined us for dinner one night and played songs by ear to entertain. Music, piano, and memories . . . they just go together. Don’t they?
Johnny Crash? I love it. I’ve got a friend in my book group who was/is an artist in Seattle. He went by the name of Dr. Johnny Wow. Any relation?
“Johnny Crash” is a name that came to me after the death of Johnny Cash and a near death motorcycle crash I was involved in a few years later. It’s novel and a lot easier to remember and pronounce than by real name. After years of being a sheet music junkie (I couldn’t play anything unless I had music in front of me) I discovered a new way of listening to music as an engineer would look at an apparent complex design for underlying principles. Actually it’s all rather simple when you understand and listen to the four components of all music: bass, rhythm, melody and accompaniment and develop a suite of riffs for each component which can then be reassembled into an infinite numbers of incredibly rich compositions. Rather than playing by hearing you are playing by engineering. Point is I could never play, using sheet music, compositions that I play effortlessly “by ear”. I once tried teaching this concept to a concert level pianist but she gave up after just a few lessons: too unstructured, imaginative and perhaps dangerous given her indoctrination by piano teachers in her past who couldn’t imagine playing “by ear”. Heresy!
Don Doman says
So, you have your own studio? We used to have a video production studio in downtown Tacoma, but now I just have my desk with two different computers on it? What area are you from?
Nancy Henderson says
Yes, wonderful story. We had a black upright piano that we kids plucked on and my mother played quite well. We couldn’t afford lessons. My mother encouraged us to learn with an elementary music book, but that didn’t go very far.
In grade school my sister took up the trumpet but quit at age 16. I could only make a sound on the trombone, but my arms were too short. The baritone horn became my instrument. I added the guitar on my late teens, the violin in my 30’s, and the ukulele (makes you smile) years later.
Three years ago I decided to finally learn the piano. It is pure joy and relaxation to play it. I wish I had started years ago, but as the saying goes, “when the student is ready the teacher appears.”
And the old piano..my sister has it. A Steinway. It begs to be played.
Don Doman says
It sounds like an upright grand.
Yes. Pure joy and relaxation. The piano is always patiently waiting. You don’t have to oil anything or use a spit valve. I’m glad to took the step for finally learning. I can sit down and change moods with virtually every song. I’m glad you enjoyed the article and shared your thoughts and memories.