Wednesday, July 1, 2020

52 Ancestors - SOLO: Piano Recitals

One of the fond memories my children and nephews likely will have of their grandmother is hearing her play carols on the piano on Christmas Eve. She did not use a book of popular songs or sheet music. She played by ear. If she knew a tune, she could play it.
Mary Eleanor Davis Slade Christmas 1993
Christmas Eve 1993
Mary Eleanor Davis Slade with Clay, Justin, Joel
Wendy and Zoe on the sofa
What a gift.

Yet what an irritation to me whenever I needed help reading the music I was supposed to practice for my upcoming piano lesson. Momma always claimed she did not read music well or that she had forgotten most of what she learned as a piano student.

If she didn’t really READ music, why were there a gazillion pieces of sheet music in a box retrieved from my grandparents’ attic after 70 years? Honestly, the stack of sheet music stood at least a foot deep. That is a lot of music.

Many of the pieces were popular tunes of the day by artists like Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Dean Martin - teenage heart-throb music of the 40s.

However, two of the pieces of music might have been songs my mother played as a beginning student under the tutelage of Priscilla Harman at the Harman School of Music in Shenandoah, Virginia. Maybe Mary Eleanor was given “Mickey Mouse’s Birthday Party” copyright 1936 and “Whistle While You Work” 1937 in the year they were written or shortly after. At age 7 or 8, what little girl would not have wanted to play a song from Disney’s new movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs?

I had hoped to find that one or both had been a recital piece, but no such luck. In 1938, when she was just 9 years old, she and 3 other little girls performed a “piano quartal.” The piece was called “In the Procession” which was written for “one piano – eight hands.” That must have been interesting to watch, to say the least. (A reviewer on Amazon described the piece as a “show stopper” when she, her mother, and her sisters performed it as the finale of a recital in 1962.)
from Harrisonburg Daily News Record
30 Apr 1938

Finally, in 1939, at just 10 years old, little Mary Eleanor performed a solo called “Mirth and Gayety” by Carl Wilhelm Kern. The piece appears simple because it is primarily single notes played one at a time rather than big chords, but the 16th notes in 2:4-time, key changes, and fingering techniques like staccato make this piece quite a challenge.
Mary Eleanor Davis
age 10

Harrisonburg Daily News Record
15 Jun 1939
I do not think I ever played a piece quite like that one when I was a piano student under Mrs. Anne Shuler. My love-hate relationship with the piano has been shared before HERE. After that post appeared, Mrs. Shuler’s daughter Jan sent me pictures of the programs from our 1966 and 1967 recitals. Oh boy - “Lament” and Chopin's Prelude Opus 28 No. 4 – yes, I was wallowing in that teen phase of loving dreary and moody pieces.
1967 Recital
1966 Recital

Here is a little YouTube video of SOMEBODY playing my recital piece. I’m sure that’s exactly how it sounded when performed by me as a moody teenager.

Amy Johnson Crow continues to challenge genealogy bloggers and non-bloggers alike to think about our ancestors and share a story or photo about them. The challenge is “52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks.

© 2020, Wendy Mathias. All rights reserved.


  1. Your mom was very talented! Perhaps she liked the sheet music for the words?


  2. It's pretty amazing that your mother was able to play without looking at music. Either she played by ear or she had an amazing memory--either way is impressive.

  3. I know several people who can play piano by ear and I'm always amazed when I hear them. Good for your mom and fun for your family at Christmas time and for other celebrations.
    When I searched "In the Procession" it led me to "Procession in D Minor for 4 Pianos with 8 Hands" by Tito Abeleda (at, which may or may not be the same piece. I can hardly imagine 4 people playing the same piano at the same time.

  4. What great memories you've given to me - practicing for piano recitals and listening to my dad play the organ.