Mack Williams: Learning the keys, eyeing the stars

  • Posted: Wednesday, November 28, 2012 7:41 p.m.

By Mack Williams
For the Salisbury Post
I studied piano (not quite as much before each lesson as expected) from Erna Lee Jones at Granite Quarry School.
From early on, the appearance of cupped, somewhat timid fingers moving hesitatingly downward, transferring printed musical notes to the ear was a special phenomenon to me, but not like you might think. I experienced this feeling more often when I watched someone else articulate their digits, and less when I looked down at my own at work on the keys.
It's similar to the impression which I have had since I first began using a pen or pencil and watching others write. Whenever I observe someone else in the act of writing, the movement of their hand, the flowing and shaping of the letters, either in ink or in graphitic flow, has always appeared more "magical" to me than when performed myself.
About the time of eighth grade, I began taking piano from Dr. Arthur Honeychurch, the organist and choirmaster of St. John's Lutheran Church in Salisbury, my father dropping me off and waiting outside during my lesson.
Upon entering the sanctuary, I always found Dr. Honeychurch practicing at the pipe organ as the last daylight was leaving the stained glass. He had a memorable appearance: tall, black-frame glasses, wavy hair and a cleft chin. He reminded me a little of a similarly bespectacled, but taller and thinner version of the composer Franz Schubert (but the person of whom he most reminded me, you will find out later in this recollection).
Although he didn't seem to have an overabundance of words, Dr. Honeychurch's manner was kind (such kindness even extending to those less desirous of piano practice).
When the day came for my weekly entrance into what I always refer to as "Salisbury's cathedral," I noted such resemblance on the inside as well - the lofty ceiling, the inner expansiveness, and at that time of day, the encroaching, vaulted shadows accompanying the sun's descent (technically, the earth's turn).
At that hour, the darkness within and without the great structure was steadily on the increase, with the only interior lighting being the bulb of the small lamp at the organ's console. At his bench, Dr. Honeychurch, a much more dutiful "student" than I, sat practicing.
The total quantity of minutes of both my weekly practice and lesson time back then were most often equal in their amounts, and if the reader is thinking that this was pretty bad, I will go further by stating that both of those sets of minutes usually transpired contemporaneously.
Sir Isaac Newton taught us that two things can never occupy the same physical space, but both my piano lesson and my piano practicing occupied the same temporal space (and in a way, sort of contrary to Newton, they both occupied the same physical space too, since in both, the part of me employed in sitting was the same, and in both, that upon which I sat was the same).
As I watched Dr. Honeychurch, the sunlight lessened and the organ light grew, illuminating the printed musical notes which were becoming "incarnated" by the actions of fingers, feet, keys and pedals.
In the receding twilight, an indoor vault of stars could be seen beyond and high above the place where Dr. Honeychurch sat. This was the sculpted, inner canopy above St. John's altar, an upper "Holy of Holies" painted blue with golden stars, which to the best of my memory, were surrounded with what appeared to be gilt flames pictured in static leap from the stars' edges,(a picture of faith close resembling the photographs taken by science's solar telescopes of the arching solar flares at the rim of the sun's disk).
I remember those architecturally vaulted stars being pretty much equidistant in comparison to the random stars of the natural world, such regular, measured placement not conducive to imagined figures such as "Leo the Lion," "Orion the Hunter," the "Great Bear" (or "Big Dipper"), etc.
The blue, inner dome of St. John's, as well as the outer dome of sky, were soon becoming the same shade as that of deep space. The faux sky darkened, but the faux stars did also, while outside, each true star gradually reached the number of its maximum apparent magnitude as listed in the star charts.
Inside the church, the glow of that organ lamp, non-twinkling, steadily increased until it reached its number of maximum magnitude which had been stamped on the bulb at the factory. After a few minutes of practice at the organ, Dr. Honeychurch would lead me to a room where a well-lit piano was waiting for me.
Concerning a previously mentioned comparison of Dr. Honeychurch with someone, children are quick to note the facial resemblances between their teachers and that of a famous person on television or in the movies.
In my own personal case, the same also goes with voices, as when we were at East Rowan, the late Dean Lingle (who went on to become a Lutheran minister) once told me that my speaking voice bore a certain and definite resemblance to the voice of the character actor Peter Lorre.
Having reached a maximum height of 5-6 and a quarter-inche in my young adulthood, and as a result of 61 years of the constant application of the force of gravity, I have slowly shrunk down now to 5-6, with only an inch to go until I reach Peter Lorre's 5-5.
The Salisbury Post's Deidre Parker Smith and I are friends on Facebook, and not very long ago I saw where she commented on some sound or something-or-other which she found to be creepy. Seeing that post, I dusted off my Peter Lorre voice (which I have polished to perfection over the years) and shortly thereafter, Deidre received a phone call from "Mr. Lorre," and who knows, someday, so may you!
The preceding paragraph just goes to reinforce the ease and frequency of the commonplace noting of resemblances among people in general, and my youthful noting, in particular, of a certain resemblance between Dr. Honeychurch and someone else (not Peter Lorre) whom I had watched on television a few years earlier on some very early mornings.
At that time, the prominent astronomer and physicist, Dr. Robert Jastrow had a program on public TV, an over-the-air course on astronomy and physics. My comparison of the two men's faces, I may admit, may have been strongly influenced by my great interest in star-gazing (instead of looking at the world then through rose-colored glasses, I was looking at it, and beyond, frequently through binoculars and a telescope).
In his early morning lectures, Dr. Jastrow would sometimes write the involved formulae of stellar physics on a blackboard. While watching Dr. Honeychurch practice the pipe organ, I would also look at the involved musical notes of the scores of J.S. Bach and the other composers from which he would play.
As well as the physical resemblance between the Doctor of Music and the Doctor of Astronomy and Physics, there was the ultimate similarity of how each man used his fingers in performing his life's work. In both, the end result was to make intricate "formulae" known to the mind. Dr. Jastrow's preferred path to the mind was through the eye, while Dr. Honeychurch's chosen route was by way of the ear.

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