Music Teachers for the Ages

Not too long ago, a very fine friend and fellow, recounted his childhood experiences with one music teacher he still so fondly remembers. I, also, have a music teacher or two, who have claim to a very sweet spot in my heart. Each teacher I consider part of the fabric that has woven my experience in the exceptional world of music.

Perhaps the most storied of teachers, was Mrs. Munn. Ah, Mrs. Munn, a beautiful soul who made a seemingly very abrupt exit from my life. In truth, it was me. I graduated high school, went on to college and kind of forgot about this very important influencial person. But youth tends to do this. We often realize the good after it is too late. Well, I started my lessons with Mrs. Munn after I had a year or two of violin under my belt. I began learning the instrument in public school in fifth grade. Eventually, on urging of my grandmother, my parents sought after a good music teacher who lived in our town. Mrs. Munn was recommended.

Getting to her house was an event. Because I had so many siblings, it was sometimes up to me to get myself there. Thus, my violin case bore a nifty shoulder strap, and my music was easy to transport in my bookcase. (Back in those days, the sixties and seventies, a bookcase could mean a satchel for books and music, not just a a tall shelf.) Mine had green and gold plaid material and what appeared to be green leather. It probably wasn’t. That’s alright, it felt scholarly to me. Now, the idea was to be able to walk three miles from my family home to her house. Thus, I happily did, which was about an hour’s walk.

Mrs. Munn was extremely practical. If you stepped into her front door, you were met with a thick heavy plastic floor runner to walk upon to avoid soiling the carpet. In the six years I took lessons from her, I never stepped onto the plush carpeting in her home. Next, you would hear piano notes emanating from the room around the corner. That would be Madame Munn at the keys. Also in the hearing was the sound of either a cello, viola or violin and sometimes, in accompaniment, would be noticed the lulling, contributing snore of her royal German Shepherd, “Baron”. (More about Baron will come later in this article.)

Upon entering Mrs. Munn’s home, if you did not hear these sounds, then you knew you could walk right into “the music room” and get started. If you did hear the lilt of musical notes, you politely sat down on the gray couch, under the end table lamp, next to the proverbial candy jar. Mrs. Munn always knew how to keep children well behaved. She’d ply them with candy. Being a good girl, I never took any until I heard this familiar sentence, “Oh hello, come right in, make yourself comfortable and help yourself to some candy.” That was it. The delightful, hoped for sentence. Magazines were also by the candy jar, and I read a lot of National Geographics and Redbook while waiting for the lesson ahead of me to finish. If I had walked in the summer heat, Mrs. Munn would usually have a glass of lemonade ready to be poured for me, which was a welcomed sight. Some of my other siblings took lessons from her, and I recall once or twice being invited to her home to just sit down to a teacher/student luncheon. I will never forget eating a delicious sandwich on pumpernickel bread. I hadn’t had that kind of bread before, but, I loved it! Mrs. Munn was excellent with children. She knew what we liked and she kept her business thriving due to that inside knowledge.

Lesson after lesson, year after year, phase after phase, Lucille Munn was my constancy. God bless her patience. I think she loved me like a daughter and her patience with my perennially repeating issues which never seemed to phase her. She never once scolded me, and I never once felt pressured. Try as she may, she never could quite get me past that hurdle of learning to vibrato. It all came down to the first teachings of handling the violin, and she was not there for those first two years. Well, unfortunately, I learned to comfortably hold the violin neck, rather than create an arc of space by balancing my thumb on the neck only, and holding up the violin by my chin bearing down on the chinrest. Mrs. Munn could tell I loved music and that I knew when technique sounded “right”. So, she started to see a growing disillusionment in me because, here, I could play concertos, but I simply could not make my violin sing via the use of vibrato. It made me angry at myself. We tried spools of thread placed between the neck and my thumb. She encouraged me so much, but I just had a physical block and the damage was done.

However, Lucille Munn inspired me to tackle wonderful pieces, and to play for her what we were learning in orchestra. She successfully taught me to bow correctly, which any violinist will tell you is paramount to good playing. My music teacher confidant that she was, somehow survived all the other machinations going on in my life…sibling rivalry, puberty, and other interests such as girl scouts, and drillteam. I know she was an amazing teacher and I rather think I took her for granted. I am so sorry for this. But, her teachings about phrasing, intonation, and bowing remain as vibrant reminders that are useful to me even today.

Now, Mrs. Munn may have had a gray couch, a subtle, silver carpet, and plain walls, but she herself, was a colorful character! She was rather short…maybe teetering on the mark of 5’7″. She wore simple, nondescript clothing and did not seem to have a sense of humor as far as I could tell. But there are two great stories attached to my memory of her. The first one has to do with the fact that she was a fully-blown practicing Christian Scientist. One occasion she was being plagued by inundating ants. Most of us resort to using the “chemical blast” to eradicate the highly unwelcomed intruders. She, however, used the power of prayer. “After all, ants belong in their anthill home, not MY home,” she said. Well, her story she told me, (and I have every reason to believe it is the truth), is an eye opener. 😳. Mrs. Munn claims due to much concentrated thought as to where the ants truly belong, she discovered them no longer trailing amuck in her house. Instead, they had formed an organized, almost infantry parade-like line of exiting ants. She said they marched right past her one day and literally, out her front door to the front yard, never to return again! I was shocked at the details of this recounting, but, I believe!🐜🐜🐜🐜🐜🐜🐜🐜🐜🐜🐜🐜🐜🐜

Now, the other story is one every dog owner should hear. Baron, was a mighty presence. He often lay, with regal aplomb underneath her piano as Mrs. Munn taught. (He knew how to get the best sound). One rainy day, when most likely he did not get his morning walk, he sat up and seemed to be toying with some train of thought leading to a decision he’d have to make. Well, Mrs. Munn, engaged a certain ritual for all students. As the eager pupils approached her music room, a folding table was demonstrably situated in front and near the window at the entrance to the area where pupils could get fully set up with their music and instrument. Before the lesson began, you were to place your mother’s check or cash on the folding tray. This one particular music day, Baron decided he was much too hungry. He wolfed down every last personal check and dollar bill from that little table. Already by late morning, the contents amounted to what in those days was a lot of money–$80! She never scolded him. She just changed her method of receiving payment. Thusly, Baron, was never put on the “back burner” when it came to activity time and lunch. This was my teacher. And such was life.

Another grand personage in the world of music for me, was Mr. Charles Ross. He is still highly revered by our town. He arrived as a young music teacher, endeavoring to do what nobody had ever done in our town. He started a music program in our school district. He brought classical music to our little “city”, and this eventually branched out into other genres, including marching band, choir and jazz band. Band was not really his “thing” but, he knew whom to hire to make it happen. I knew him because of violin. I was introduced to violin in my 5th grade year. We were all assembled at my elementary school’s auditorium. I remember seeing this man onstage with four wooden instruments that seemed to look alike except for size. Knowing, by this age I was a “schpunt”, as my mom would say,  I ignored the bass viol and cello. They were too large and unwieldy for me. The viola had a nice mellow sound, but the violin was small and I decided I was little and should play something little. 🎻 It was a good match. My parents had to drive me in to a city half an hour away to find a quarter size violin, since, my arms were just not long enough to meet a half-size. My clever parents located a quarter-size violin hanging in a music shop window and convinced the proprietor to sell it to us. Probably, the size of my violin is why I did not learn to vibrato. (not much room on the fingerboard).

Bless Mr. Ross’ soul, he would travel to every school and teach around thirty kids at a time. This meant he would have to be extremely patient and a good enough leader to tune all those instruments while the awaiting students grew potentially antsy. He got us all past “Hot Cross Buns”, and we learned “Barcarolle”, “Volga Boatman”, “Merry Widow’s Waltz”, etc. Our parents liked the results, too. Once in junior high, I moved on to learning student concertos such as the Seitz Violin Concerto. I remember playing “Pavanne”, “Flight of the Bumble Bee”, and “Beethoven’s 5th Symphony , 4th movement.” It was all about the ending on the downbow. He pitted Lois, another violinist against me, vying for 1st chair. If, we didn’t keep up to snuff, the other would take the lead position. I kept it for a few weeks!  I loved that competition very much. Charles Ross believed in me, too. He drove me to Saturday violin competitions, and I came home with “Superior Minus” ratings….that minus always pushed me a bit further. I recall discussing Liberace with him and asking if he was not the greatest pianist ever. He diplomatically answered that he was the best entertainer of all…Mr. Ross also made a home visit to my house to encourage my parents to not let my brother quit playing the cello. It is an understatement to say Mr. Ross was dedicated to furthering music via children.

I could swear he was Beethoven himself sometimes, gesturing and jumping up and down with his “Einsteinian” hair wildly dancing to and fro. He would have to swipe it from his eyes as he’d make a sweeping turn of the music page, not skipping a beat, while conducting. He insisted “eyes on him” and “no toe tapping”. But, that gentleman could command junior high orchestras to do amazing things. He made music sizzle🔥 for me. I often got chills up and down my spine. I soon learned to covet the sound of being immersed in a full orchestra, hearing “surround sound” from the violins to the cellos to the trumpets to the timpani. He was my sturm and drang, my waves of chromaticism and my lilting cloud-puffs of serenity. He held me “captive” by the tip of his baton and the arch of his eyebrow. Mr.Ross taught me something most would say cannot be taught. He taught me to LOVE music. Really love it, from within. Regrettably, I never got to thank him in a way he deserved. After I graduated high school and went on to college, I heard that he passed away. He never knew I took up learning the harp, but still can play violin when I have one to play. I hope he reads internet blogs up in heaven.

Mrs.Munn also moved away before I could give her a proper thank you. Even both of my harp teachers have moved on to new chapters and horizons. Each one built a lifetime memory for me. They were all harbingers of the good in life. Next time, I will recall memories of my harp teachers; both quite different, yet very special, too. Plus, the story of me and my harp is worth telling. Thus, one and all, stay tuned… no pun intended!