Music Genes: Piano lessons

“The show must go on,” was a family mantra that I heard often. My uncles and aunts told stories of daily performances “on the road.” They said that although they were only children, they could never be sick or too tired to perform. People in show business still live by that rule.

Actually, many in my generation were forced to study music. Even my gangster cousin Reggie Bolt could play Mozart and Chopin on the piano! Our grandmother, Madame Tempy or Mother, as she was often called, insisted that we learn classical music. Some of my relatives secretly played jazz, gospel and popular music. Some of them received voice training and instruction on a variety of instruments like the violin, sax, trumpet, clarinet, drums and various percussion instruments. Old-fashioned piano teachers like my grandmother employed all kinds of teaching techniques that would never fly today, like tying cord around our fingers for muscle memory, hitting our knuckles with a ruler, grunting or yelling if you played wrong notes, and assigning difficult make-up homework.

There was no getting out of piano lessons. Like church, it was a family requirement. Very few escaped. And we had to practice everyday. We were lucky enough to have four pianos at home—three uprights and one concert grand—all leftovers from grandmother’s studios. Living with that many pianos created a fun atmosphere. At times, my home was like a music school, theater or nightclub depending on the day and who was there.

Researching about my family’s traveling musical act as they “migrated” from the South to Harlem has been my passion for years. I inherited many photos and stories. As a college student I even composed a folk opera about their journey. I am also digging for information about my mother’s Caribbean musical relatives. My maternal Aunt Elaine Wong Cameron, my middle namesake, sent piano books to me from Trinidad often. I heard that she led a steel drum (pan) orchestra that was wildly popular in Trinidad. I am always searching for musical family stories. I believe that music helped my family cope with the difficulties associated with immigration and migration.  Scientists believe that music is powerful medicine. Click here to learn about the healing power of music. Studying the mysterious connection between music and genes is ongoing. Click here to learn more.

If you could start over, what musical instrument would you play?