Tribute to a Small-Town Music Teacher

PianoOn a summer Sunday afternoon, approximately 50 people gathered together at the St. Paul United Church of Christ for an unusual kind of surprise party. The woman in charge gave instructions, handed out signs for people along the aisle to hold, and surveyed the crowd “is there anyone here who knows how to play ‘The Entertainer’?” At this, an elderly woman in perfect posture raised her hand as though she’d been waiting all her life for just such a question, she took her seat at the piano at the front of the room and poised her hands above the keys in anticipation. At last, the guest of honor arrived. She made her way down the aisle of the church, greeting everyone and looking in surprise at the faces of old friends, neighbors, and students gathered there to see her. The shock seemed to slow her down, as did her walker and new artificial leg. This was a tribute recital to honor LaVonne Harris, who served her community as a piano and organ teacher for 44 years, and is now facing limitation on her ability to practice her craft after a series of recent health struggles. This was the sort of event that every teacher would want but could never dare expect. For all these years, recitals were held in this same where students played to receive encouragement or impress their parents. This time, they were playing for Lavonne. It was a testament to the depth of her contribution and to the strength of the community she served.

Most of the performances were classics. LaVonne is not the typical small-town music teacher who was satisfied to teach students to merely produce music. Each lesson was an exercise in mastery. And though most students never reached their complete potential (or anywhere near Lavonne’s level) everyone received a formal education that coupled technique with aspiration. Perhaps that’s why so many former students chose to perform aspirational songs that were outside their comfort zone. It wasn’t about perfection, it was about appreciation, it wasn’t not about being “recital-ready” every day of your life, it was about having the familiarity to sit down at a piano bench and have the fluency to make something beautiful with it.

Each former student spoke a few words before they played to explain their musical selection and to thank their teacher, offering a meaningful context to every piece. Before playing Arabesque #1 by Claude Debussy (by memory), a young former student thanked his teacher for giving him the gift of music, “the thing in my life that brings me the most joy.”

Later, a “truet” of three other music teachers whose perfectly practiced fingers hit every note.

One woman played a song named after the honored teacher, in which a two-note sequence reminded her of the syllables of LaVonne’s name. Every time she played those notes, she would turn around in her chair to the audience with a look that said: “get it?”

Another student played a song that she had discovered in an old recording. It was a composition by her grandmother, a self-taught musician who couldn’t read music, but played for the silent films. LaVonne translated the fuzzy audio recording into sheet music, giving new life to the old song so that the composer’s granddaughter could learn it. Watching the woman play, it was possible to imagine a similar-looking woman playing those very same notes a lifetime before.

Overall, the recital was an eclectic mix with old-time jazz, spirituals, love songs, original works, and famous compositions. There were soloists who fumbled tentatively through nerves and cobwebby minds as well as masters of the craft. Claire de Lune was performed three times by students of all ranges of ability (if only we all had more time to study with her!)

The recital ended with a dedication song by Lavonne’s son. The chorus included one line for him and another for the audience to sing together “thank you mom, thank you LaVonne.” It was gloriously heartwarming.

For the consummate educator, it must have been hard to merely listen to the music without worrying about hand placement or pedal timing or missed notes, we can only hope she was able to tune her ear to the love and appreciation in the humble offerings of her students who came that day to play a tribute to their wonderful teacher.


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