As far as I know, my family boasts no classical pianists nor opera divas. I wouldn’t say that we are particularly musical, unless you count the bagpipes as a musical instrument, which some people refuse to do, considering their original purpose was to scare the bejeezus out of whichever warring clan the pipers were up against that week.
I, however, love the pipes and drums and once spent an entire afternoon following the Winnipeg Police Pipe Band around Miller Hill Mall, until they started getting nervous and asked me to leave. We happen to count several quite accomplished pipers in our family group, including one who is pipe major and founding father of Twin Cities Metro Pipes and Drums.
They wear the Clark tartan in honor of my father, the late Ray Clark, who would probably be surprised to hear that, since he was Welsh. Along with practicing and performing original musical pieces in Midwest competitions and participating in parades, the fun-loving metro band enjoys be-deviling their pipe major, like the road trip when they duct taped his motel room door completely shut, except for the peephole. Apparently, the love of music does not eliminate love of mischief-making.
My father, mentioned above, did not play an instrument that I know of, but he loved to dance and he and my mother were very smooth movers in the big band days. My mother, being a flapperish teenager in the 1920s, played the ukulele with some skill and taught me to play “My Little Grass Shack” when I was 6.
At 8, she gave me a choice — I could take piano lessons or tap dancing lessons. I had two friends who were learning to play the piano. All I ever heard were the scales, up and down, up and down, do it again. Tap dancers, on the other hand, wore sparkly costumes, shoes that made a lot of noise and lipstick. Piano players did none of those things. Triple Tap, here I come.
We little tappers had our Saturday morning lessons in the old gymnasium at the Elks Club downtown and in the afternoon, we would perform for the bar patrons, who thought we were adorable. The added bonus was that my mother found her niche, sewing the fluffy little skirts and shiny headpieces that we strutted around in. From then on, our kitchen table always had a corner piled high with sequins and netting.
Tap dancers, however, learn time steps and routines. Pianists learn to read music, which I didn’t. And I did love to sing. I sang in the junior high and high school choirs; I sang in school Gilbert and Sullivans. I sang in a girls trio, “Three Little Maids From School Are We.” La, la, la, la, la. I sang in the Presbyterian church choir, where I met my husband.
He had opted for the piano lessons, overseen by a very strict nun, who rapped him on the knuckles with a wooden ruler for a misplayed note. When I met him, his repertoire included “Fur Elise” on the piano, some jolly tunes on his square box concertina and several selections of twangy vibrational melodies on the mandolin.
I was enthralled. I was dating a musician! In addition, he gave me my very first classical record, “Invitation to the Ball,” setting me on the path of music appreciation that went beyond Bill Haley and “Rock Around the Clock.” He had a fine tenor voice, much admired in choral groups, those tenors.
He was tapped to sing in his college Glee Club and traveled all over Europe one summer, singing for crowned heads and papal people. It was the experience of a lifetime and he still has stories to tell about wearing paper collars and cuffs, sleeping in a Scottish haystack and flying in a converted DC-3 plane, sporting “May West” life preservers all the way across the ocean.
In the 1960s, while living in Germany courtesy of the U.S Air Force, we bought a lovely handmade German guitar and I took some lessons. I sang folk songs and learned how to “hammer on” to “Pretty Peggy-O” and “The Silkie.” I grew my hair very long and thought I was Joan Baez. But guess what? I wasn’t even close.
As teenagers, our children tried their hands at saxophone, flute, banjo, violin and mandolin. Our oldest started playing my guitar. When he quickly became more accomplished on my instrument than I ever was, I gave up my dreams of a lucrative recording career (big sigh), passed the guitar on and cut my hair.
Eventually, the guitar became the musical training wheels for our grandsons, suffering some dry winter splits and a buckled keyboard. But the story of the handmade guitar has a fairytale ending. It was purchased by a man who restored its original beauty and sound.
Even better. He did it with the help of the son of the original maker, whom he searched for and found, making guitars at the family business in Germany.
Happy endings are the best, aren’t they?
Next time: “Good ideas gone wrong.”
Claudia Myers is a former costume designer for The Baltimore Opera, Minnesota Ballet and has taught design and construction at The College of St Scholastica. She is a national award-winning quilter, author and a local antique dealer, specializing in Persian rugs.