Tribute to a Small-Town Music Teacher

PianoOn a summer Sunday afternoon, approximately 50 people gathered together in a church for an unusual kind of surprise party. The woman in charge gave instructions, handed out signs for people along the aisle to hold and asked “is there anyone here who knows how to play ‘The Entertainer’?” An elderly woman raised her hand in perky perfect posture as though she’d been waiting all her life to put this latent skill to use, for just such a moment as this! At last, the guest of honor arrived, she made her way slowly down the aisle of the church, greeting and looking in surprise at the faces of old friends and neighbors gathered there to see her, and also slowed down by her walker and artificial leg. This was a tribute recital for LaVonne Harris, who for 44 years has served her community as a piano and organ teacher and who, after a series of recent health struggles is due for some much-deserved appreciation. This was the sort of event that every teacher would want but could never dare expect. It was a testament both to the depth of her contribution and to the strength of the community she served.

Each former student spoke a few words before they played to explain their musical selection and thank their teacher, offering a meaningful context to every piece. Before playing Arabesque #1 by 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.”

Most of the performances were classics like these. LaVonne is not the typical small-town music teacher who was satisfied to teach students to merely produce music– she taught for mastery. Each lesson was an exercise in aspiration. And though most students never reached their complete potential (or anywhere near their teacher’s level) everyone received a formal education grounded in technique and coupled with aspiration and a love of good music. Perhaps that’s why so many former students chose to perform those difficult but beautiful 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.

Overall, the recital was an eclectic mix with old time jazz, spirituals, and love songs; original works and famous compositions; there were soloists who fumbled tentatively through nerves and cobwebby minds and 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 who played it for the silent films. LaVonne translated the fuzzy 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.

The recital ended with a dedication song by the guest of honor’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, but hopefully she was able to tune her ear to the love and appreciation in the humble offerings of each of her former students who came that day to play a tribute to their wonderful teacher.


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