Harvest Gold

Harvest Gold

Monday, July 13, 2015

Let All My Life Be Music

Mary Beth Cunningham and me, July 1975
And on a thrilling major chord
There let life end.

We said goodbye on Sunday.

Mary Beth Cunningham was one of my private voice teachers during high school. I started voice lessons when I was in junior high. My first teacher moved, and, at the time, I was devastated. I didn't like change as a child any more than I like it now.

But it turned out to be one of those blessings in disguise, though I certainly don't want to imply anything against my first teacher. For a year or so, Mrs. Cunningham didn't have room to add me to her studio. Thankfully, my parents convinced Nancy Kerr to teach me, though she wasn't teaching full-time. She is a phenomenal soprano, and I learned a great deal from her in my short time under her tutelage. I have always been grateful.

I then became Mrs. Cunningham's student, and we finished the final two years of my high school career together.

I wasn't much of an athlete. I was out for sports, but I spent my time scrimmaging against the first-team girls during practice and holding down the end of the bench during games. I was more known for singing The Star-Spangled Banner in my basketball uniform than I was for actually playing ball in it.

Music was my thing, especially vocal music. Mrs. Cunningham believed in pushing students. I remember the first song I sang for my initial voice teacher was "Tammy," from a television show. Mrs. Kerr and Mrs. Cunningham had me singing soprano arias. Mrs. Cunningham believed in working hard and striving for excellence. It was a message that resonated with this first-born overachiever.

Because I have accompanied for school, I would sometimes see Mrs. Cunningham at music festivals, where she still served as a judge. Watching her work with middle school students always took me back to my days standing at her piano, where she taught me to breath deeply, to enunciate and, most importantly, to interpret the music. But, even years after my lessons ended, I never could bring myself to call her anything other than "Mrs. Cunningham."

Yesterday morning at church, I sang a solo for special music. As Mrs. Cunningham's vocal student, we were always working on a religious solo. Each summer during the church choir hiatus, I'd sing at both my church, Pratt First United Methodist, and at hers, Pratt Presbyterian. After I sang yesterday, I shared with the congregation how influential Mrs. Cunningham had been on my life, and that she still impacts my life 40 years after walking out of her living room studio after my final lesson with her. It's a good lesson in how people touch us, and a reminder of the great connections we can make by using our God-given gifts in love and service to others - no matter our vocation, interests or talents.

My sister, Darci, also took voice lessons from Mrs. Cunningham, but she and my sister, Lisa, have always preferred piano. My brother, Kent, had her for private lessons, and she was also his high school vocal teacher at Pratt High School, where she directed him as the lead in The Music Man. My niece, Madison, was the last in our family to take private lessons from Mrs. Cunningham. (Kent & Madi sang a beautiful duet version of The Lord's Prayer at yesterday's memorial.)

After my senior year in high school and before I went to K-State, I gave a senior recital. It was 40 years ago this month on July 27, 1975. My sister, Lisa, and Mrs. Cunningham accompanied me. I sang several arias, along with art songs and selections from musicals.

One of the songs that afternoon was called, Let All My Life Be Music by Charles G. Spross.  (Click the link for Ben Heppner's version.) When I got to college and wanted to sing it in one of my voice classes, my college instructor thought it was a little too melodramatic. It probably was. But I always loved it anyway.
As I've remembered Mrs. Cunningham, those words came back to me:


Let all my life be music
Ah, let the heart of me be as a harp
Where joy and pain are blended harmony
Strike! Strike! The harp that is my soul
Though pain or joy it bring
My only sorrow to be dumb,
My only joy to sing!
And when the Great Musician plays
In notes of joy or pain
Then let my heart respond and sing
Though in a minor strain
A wondrous song! A living song! A rapturous song! Oh send!
And on a thrilling major chord
There let life end.

During the memorial service, a choir composed of her students sang, directed by her former colleague, Don Buhler. We got together Saturday morning to practice, and, by Sunday afternoon, we were performing four songs. There was a wide age range -- from high school students, who just lost their private teacher, to people like me, who still remember the lessons after 40 years. Others were in her school or church choirs sometime during her 56 years in music education.
Thanks to my sister-in-law, Suzanne, for snapping a photo
The final song was Battle Hymn of the Republic. For former Pratt High School choir members, this selection was a quintessential program finale for their former teacher.

And as the final notes in four-part harmony drifted away on the stage of Liberty Middle School in Pratt, I thought again to the lines from "Let All My Life Be Music."

And when the Great Musician plays
In notes of joy or pain
Then let my heart respond and sing...
And on a thrilling major chord
There let life end.

It was a fitting tribute to a life well lived.

Thank you, Mrs. Cunningham -- 1936-2015


10 comments:

  1. Kim,

    What a neat way to pay tribute to a special lady in so many lives. It sounds like Mrs. Cunningham will be alive in the hearts of many for years to come.

    I like your pink dress!

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    1. It was my senior prom dress. I made it. My daughter couldn't believe I actually made my own prom dresses, but everybody did, back in the "olden days."

      I am very grateful for Mrs. Cunningham's influence.

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    2. My Sister made the prom dress I wore my Senior year. I only went to the one prom and had a beautiful dark blue dress.

      One of the gals that works at the town Clinic made her own Wedding dress.

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    3. I wouldn't have attempted a wedding dress! But my friend made two for her daughter a couple of summers ago. I figured out a long time ago that Jill wouldn't wear anything I made -- or that she made either! It was an easy decision to give up 4-H sewing. I'd much rather cook!

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  2. No lessons for me from Mrs. Cunningham. A few from Mrs. D but while my tones were low, they must not have been quite as nice as Karen Carpenter's! Sounds like a nice tribute to a lady who taught so many.

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    1. Ah, Karen Carpenter. Another big influence in my life, though I only admired her from afar.

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  3. Lovely, Kim. Megan took voice lessons from her as well. She influenced many young lives.

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    1. I don't know how many she taught, but during 56 years as a music educator, she touched a whole lot of lives.

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  4. 56 years is a long time to teach. So many people would have been touch by your teacher, Mrs Cunningham in that time, which is an incredible beautiful legacy. And such a fitting tribute as a send off.

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    1. She had a recital scheduled the day after she died, so she was still actively teaching. A young man who just graduated in May sang a solo at the service. And there were people there from her very first teaching job, who participated in the choir. It truly is amazing to think about all the lives she touched.

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