“John Thompson”


I just finished a new painting based on the kids’ song “Oats, Peas, Beans, and Barley Grow,” which has been running through my head constantly these past two weeks.

All this interior music made me remember my long-ago piano lessons, the kindly old gentleman (or so I pictured him) John Thompson, and his “modern course” for piano.

Mrs. Sylvia Smith was my first teacher. I was six, and I walked to her house during the noon-hour. She lived about five blocks from Meadowlark Elementary—plenty of time to take a half-hour lesson and get back before the bell rang. I forgot to go once, and my mother made me call to apologize. She dialed the phone and handed it to me. I was so humiliated I was almost crying.


“Mrs. Smith-I’m-sorry-I-forgot-my-lesson-it-will-never-happen-again-sorry!”

“Um, do you want to talk to my mother?” a boy asked.

It was Daniel. He was in my class at school.  Sheesh.

I liked learning to play the piano. I liked my John Thompson piano books with their bright red covers, and I really liked the illustrations. Charming line drawings decorated every song in the Teaching Little Fingers to Play. The “Volga Boatmen” sweated and strained against their ropes. “Lazy Mary” snoozed in her bed. The doll in “The Sandman” sat on a windowsill, waiting for bedtime.

I probably paid more attention to the drawings than to the music. While playing through some of these old pieces recently (the foil sticker-stars are still attached) I suddenly realized I’d been counting “The Scissors Grinder” wrong for thirty-odd years.

Yes, I still have the books. “Modern,” it turns out, is a relative term. The Second Grade Book lists a copyright of 1938 (if I’ve got my Roman numerals right). The illustrators were Doris and George Hauman.  Below is their drawing for “Two Guitars” from The Second Grade Book.

Due to kindly Mr. Thompson and the talented Haumans, I still love to noodle around on the piano, and I still love to draw. And I am so grateful that my mother made me take lessons and in doing so, opened the world of music to me.

Here’s to little fingers everywhere, finding middle “C” for the very first time. You’re going to have quite an adventure.