By June Mathews
I recently attended funeral services for my first piano teacher, Mrs. Campbell, a bittersweet occasion, to say the least. While saying goodbye to an early influencer is never easy, sharing memories with old friends, some former students like me, was soothing to the soul.
I had three other piano teachers as a kid, but if I had to name a favorite, Mrs. Campbell easily rises to the top of the list. Of course like any kid would, I resented her chastising me for not practicing, and I grew frustrated whenever she would make me play a few notes over and over and over again until I got them right.
But unlike a couple of my later teachers, she was firm but graceful in her criticism, never once causing me to cry. So overall I respected her and admired her talent, aspiring to one day play the piano as beautifully as she did.
Mrs. Campbell was also our church pianist, so I first knew her as a woman of faith. And that’s not just perception on my part. The torn and tattered Bible her son held while eulogizing his mother served as tangible evidence.
The small congregation we were a part of back then was a close-knit bunch, and several decades later, the parents of my generation, though their numbers are dwindling, meet for a meal once a month. Mrs. Campbell met with them until health issues prevented it.
And many of the kids of those parents took piano lessons from Mrs. Campbell. In fact, our pastor from those early days, now 83 years young, spoke at Mrs. Campbell’s funeral service, recalling the many lessons his own daughter took from her.
For 45 years, Mrs
. Campbell instructed, encouraged and cajoled her students; some perched on her piano bench only by parental edict, others eager to learn. One afternoon a week for half an hour or so, we’d work to master whatever selections we were currently assigned from the John Thompson piano series.
Were it not for Mrs. Campbell, I probably would have never heard of “Bill Grogan’s Goat,” much less learned all the lyrics to such a degree that I remember them some 40 years later.
And even though our parents paid for the lessons, sitting through those countless sessions of plinking and picking and playing of wrong notes was either a labor of love or a supreme act of service on Mrs. Campbell’s part. Or maybe it was both. I can’t begin to imagine the patience that must have taken.
She was surely called by God to teach piano; otherwise, she would have gone completely mad after only a few years of what to most people would have amounted to sheer torture. But she did what it took to stay the course.
During the service, her son recalled that she regularly retreated from the rest of the family to read her Bible, pray and meditate. No doubt she did a lot of that during the years I took lessons from her.
As with many adults who once viewed their piano lessons as the worst kind of drudgery, I came to regret quitting. In an attempt to make up for it, I took lessons as an adult for a short time. And while I’m no Van Cliburn by a long shot, I play well enough for my own enjoyment, still sitting down at the piano on occasion to hammer out a few tunes.
Out of an old habit formed while taking lessons from Mrs. Campbell, I often reach for an old Broadman Hymnal and warm up with some of the hymns she helped me learn how to play. To this day, “Trust and Obey,” “Wonderful Words of Life” and “At Calvary” remind me of her.
Thus, Mrs. Campbell’s legacy continues, not only in my life but in the lives of the many other students she taught. And though I’m not equipped to teach music, she taught me the importance of leaving my own unique legacy for the next generation.
So thanks, Mrs. Campbell, for the life lessons you taught me through music, as well as for the ability to entertain myself with a song or two every now and then.
And thanks, too, for never once causing me to cry.