Teaching Little Fingers to Play

My good friend John Galm responded to my recent survey with a request for me to share something about my career in music. So, here goes...


My career as a composer began at age seven in 1944 when my parents bought me a piano and arranged for lessons with Mrs. Bertha Kirby. When she arrived at our house in her 1931 Chevrolet Coupe I got my very first piano lesson and my first music book—John Thompson’s “Teaching Little Fingers to Play, A Book for the Earliest Beginner.” I remember the first piece in the book as clearly as if it was yesterday. It consisted of a whole note middle C on the treble staff played with the thumb of the right hand and held for the count of four, followed by a whole note middle C on the bass staff played by the thumb of the left hand and held for the count of four. The composition continued in the same way without variation for the whole page.

1931_Chevrolet_Independance_Sport_Coupe copy
1931_Chevrolet_Independance_Sport_Coupe copy

My conclusion was that I could certainly do better than that! I got out my Big Chief Pencil Tablet and lined out a page of musical staff using my handy ruler. I worked on my first composition for several days, looking up musical symbols as needed to express what I wanted to play. When Mrs. Kirby arrived at our house the following week she was astounded to find that I had composed a piece and could play it for her. She presented me with a supply of staff paper and I continued to write a new composition for her every week. My course as a composer was firmly set.


I drew several conclusions from this experience.

1. The guy who writes the notes is in charge, and the piano player is only an employee.

2. The piano player is only as good as his (or her) last performance. If I made a mistake as a performer, Mrs. Kirby struck the back of my hand with her wooden ruler. I would have to practice every day to keep my hands from being struck.

3. The composer, on the other hand, was finished when the composition was finished. He (or she) didn’t have to practice and he (or she) didn’t get their hands struck by Mrs. Kirby’s ruler. That sounded like the perfect job for a person like me, who didn't like repetition.

That was a major impetus for my choice of career, and I spent over forty years as a professional composer. I learned many other lessons along the way, but those first lessons stuck with me for life.

There you are, John. Probably not exactly what you had in mind, but it’s a beginning—and the absolute truth as far as I can remember it.

Print Friendly and PDFPrint Friendly