My first piano teacher was Ann D. Gainey. This is the story of how we met, how she introduced me to music, and how she became a part of our family.
Nearly a half a century ago, in 1967, I was in second grade at Rock Springs Elementary School in Atlanta. My older brother went to school there, too, as did our neighborhood friends the Levys: Jerry, Carolyn, and Benny. Our moms took turns driving us all to school and then picking us up at the end of the day and ferrying us home.
Carolyn, a grade younger than me, took piano lessons from Miss Gainey after school. Miss Gainey gave piano lessons in her little apartment on Adina Drive, directly across the street from the school. On days when Carolyn had her lesson, Mrs. Levy would park on the street by the playground and we boys would play while we waited for the lesson to end. Carolyn, liberated from yet another piano lesson (she was not all that fond of the piano), would come out, we’d all pile in the car, and Mrs. Levy would drive us home.
For some reason, I became curious about these piano lessons, and I asked if I could sit in on one of them. And for some reason, I decided that I wanted to have lessons, too. I asked Miss Gainey if she could teach me and she said that of course she could. I went home and told my mother that I wanted to take piano lessons and that Carolyn’s teacher would teach me.
I’m sure that this delighted my mother. She had studied piano through high school and was apparently pretty good at it. But she dropped it completely after graduation, although she maintained a love of classical music throughout her life. She was especially fond of opera and for years had season tickets to the Metropolitan Opera’s week-long season in Atlanta.
We did not have a piano in the house; Mom hadn’t played one in years. In her typical extravagant style, she went out and bought not just a piano but a grand piano. It was a handsome brown instrument and it required rearrangement and redecorating of the living room. When we got it, Mom played one tune on it that she remembered from her youth. I wish I knew what it was or that I remembered how it went. All I can remember is her playing it a handful of times after we got the piano, that I thought it sounded magnificent, and that she never played the piano again.
Miss Gainey taught me middle C and then all the other things that beginning piano students learn. She gave me gold stars when I learned my lessons well, which was always. I loved learning all the ins and outs of playing the piano and was impatient to learn more. My mother sat in on all my lessons, often doing needlepoint during them. I went from a half-hour lesson to a full hour. Miss Gainey was perpetually enthusiastic and encouraging; she and my mother hit it off very well, and I thrived under her instruction.
I advanced quickly and showed some talent. Miss Gainey gave me more challenging material. She and my mother taught me to love classical music, and I modeled myself after Schroeder from Peanuts: crazy about Beethoven. I played in the regular recitals that Miss Gainey organized and found that I enjoyed being on stage, performing and being applauded. I received my first music theory lessons from her. She gave me interesting literature, including Bartók and Gershwin and Griffes and Carlisle Floyd. With other of her more advanced students, she had me play in four- and eight-hand arrangements of Copland’s “Billy the Kid” and Weber’s “Invitation to the dance”.
In fairly short order, my answer to “what do you want to be when you grow up?” was “a concert pianist.” Miss Gainey nurtured this ambition. She entered me in various local and state competitions, and I placed well in them. On one occasion, we took a road trip to Indiana, along with a piano teacher friend of hers, Lydia Porro. We went to a series of master classes taught by Jorge Bolet at Indiana University. It was my first glimpse of piano instruction at that level. While there, Miss Gainey introduced me to her teacher, Sidney Foster.
In 1977 I said goodbye to Miss Gainey and went to study piano at the University of Maryland. She continued teaching in Atlanta for a couple of years, then moved back to her family home in Thomasville, a small town in south Georgia, practically on the Florida line. She taught there for years afterwards, living with her sister Pat.
My mother stayed in touch with her, writing letters, sending holiday and birthday cards, all filled with news clippings that she thought Ann and Pat would be interested in. And, of course, she relayed all the news about me and my musical career. I’d occasionally get a letter or card from Miss Gainey, and when staying in Atlanta I’d sometimes talk to her on the phone. She was, as ever, enthusiastic about whatever it was that I was working on or writing about. After I married Frances, she became enthusiastic and amazed at her compositional career and all the traveling we did together for concerts and lectures.
The last time I spoke with her—just a few years ago—she told me about how she thought that she had finally retired from teaching beginning piano students. She was in her nineties at the time, with failing vision. But then another one showed up: a girl who came to her house asking if she’d teach her piano, just as I had asked forty-odd years earlier. Miss Gainey agreed and cancelled her retirement. She loved teaching beginning piano students. “I think I am going to live forever,” she told me in one of the last Christmas cards I got from her. “I see just well enough to keep teaching. It’s the only thing that keeps me going.”
This past week I got a letter from Thomasville. Pat Gainey wrote to tell me that Miss Gainey (she will forever be “Miss Gainey” to me, even though she told me I could call her “Ann”) had died on September 12th. “She had a long happy, good life busy with what she loved most,” Pat wrote. “Even this year she was teaching a 9 year-old student, our cousin Levi, the basics for beginning piano.” She was ninety-five years old and had been teaching piano for seventy years.
I dug out my score for the Chopin Etudes to look at the A-flat major etude from the Trois nouvelles études, the two-against-three etude. Miss Gainey taught it to me in 1972 and her pencilled notes are still there. The picture above, taken by my friend Elizabeth Brown, is me playing through it on an October afternoon with the sunlight striking the score. I have a tall black upright piano, much like Miss Gainey had in her apartment on Adina Drive, so this is a scene not unlike the one fifty years ago when I asked her to open the door of music to me and she happily agreed.