Perfect pitch: Marsha Carter marks 40 years as piano teacher
By Susan Shinn
CHINA GROVE ó One afternoon, when Cora Lee Ketner’s students had gone, she heard a song being played on the piano.
She went to see who it was, wondering who had returned.
It was her daughter, 3-year-old Marsha.
“Some things are just real vivid,” Marsha Carter says. “Mother had a couple of students who brought dolls. I just loved holding the dolls and listening to the music.
“I think I was always on that path to be a piano teacher.”
This spring, Marsha marked her 40th year of teaching piano. Her enthusiasm for music and for her students is still strong.
She has a week off before summer lessons start, and she’s relishing the short break.
Marsha, 62, finished this spring with 34 students, three of whom were seniors.
Hannah Freeze plans to go into music education.
She and her two brothers have taken lessons from Marsha.
“She teaches her students to be disciplined about their music,” says Hannah’s mom, Merri Jo. “But she’s so kind and loving. She’s just instilled a love of music in all of them.”
Because Marsha’s mother had been advised not to take on her daughter as a student, she took from Martha Bright.
“We could get out of elementary school and go to piano all day long,” Marsha remembers.
Another teacher, Louise Shaw, also lived across the street from China Grove Elementary.
When Marsha was in third grade, a piano guild judge discovered she had perfect pitch.
With Marsha away from the keyboard, the judge played different notes on the piano and asked her to name them.
“I just thought everybody could do that,” Marsha says. “I wouldn’t take anything for it, that’s for sure.”
Marsha got her degree in music with a concentration in piano from Greensboro College.
“I almost double-majored in organ,” Marsha says, “but I couldn’t do both. I just loved piano so much.
“When Mrs. Bright retired, she asked me if I would take on her students,” Marsha says. “So my first year, I had some teenagers. It was really nice. I got some advanced students and went on from there.”
Marsha’s parents, the late Brown and Cora Lee Ketner, moved from Kannapolis to China Grove when she was 4.
Her mother never had to remind her to practice.
“Jeffrey used to discourage me,” says Marsha of her brother. “The piano was in the same room as the TV, and TV was pretty new back then. I learned to play soft.”
Jeff may have complained, but Marsha often caught him humming whatever songs she had played.
Her younger sister, Betty Scruggs, who lives in Durham, did not like piano when she was younger. Marsha thinks it’s because they’re so close in age ó she’s two years older ó and because Marsha was the better student.
But when Betty married, Marsha says, “she started practicing, and then she was really good. She got my mom’s piano.
“You never know when you teach what sticks and what doesn’t.”
Even if a student takes piano for only a couple of years, she says, it will come in handy if they’re in band or chorus or choir.
And, Marsha notes with a grin, “You don’t see a 50-year-old cheerleader, but there’s no age limit for piano.”
You don’t even need electricity for piano, says Marsha, who taught after Hurricane Hugo, when she didn’t have power for two weeks.
“Life had to go on,” she says.
Twelve years ago, Marsha bought a Kawai piano from Davidson College.
“It’s got a really good tone,” she says. “It really was a good investment.”
She’s glad her mother’s baby grand piano stayed in the family.
When she first started teaching, she says, she didn’t have as many boys as she does today. This year, she had nine.
“That’s a lot,” she says. “It helps the younger boys to see older boys stick with it. Boys make wonderful musicians.”
They typically get paid more, too, she says.
Marsha and her husband, Jimmy, married in 1969, and a few years later built a home behind her parents. They raised three children ó two sons and a daughter ó in the house they still live today.
Her sons, Jeremy and Hayden, took lessons from Jewel Broadway, but she made an exception and taught her daughter, Caroline Sloan.
“She just did not want to take from someone else,” Marsha says. “It worked out for us.”
Marsha treats every student individually.
“Everybody doesn’t fit the norm,” she says.
If Marsha’s teachers told her to play two hours a day, that’s what she did.
“I was that kind of student,” she says.
But she realizes her students don’t have that kind of time.
“Having children, and seeing what they go through in a day, I can empathize with parents,” Marsha says. “I used to think I could inspire my students to go home and practice, but every family is different. I just have to encourage them.”
She has memorization contests among her students, and charts their progress with stickers. She gives gum or candy as prizes.
“But if that helps with a few, it’s worth it!” she says. “Practicing piano just has to become part of you, part of your routine.”
Each spring, her students participate in piano guild, in which they play memorized pieces in front of a judge.
Some of her students also participate in the Music Teachers’ Association competition, in which music is selected for them.
“It helps students branch out,” Marsha says. “That keeps me from getting stuck in Beethoven mode.”
The music she assigns now is no longer quite as difficult. Students rarely take on all movements of a sonatina or all of Bach’s inventions, for example.
She blends classical and popular music. This spring, several of the girls wanted to learn “Bella’s Lullaby” from the movie “Twilight.”
She remembers when “My Heart Will Go On” from “Titanic” came out in sheet music. It was eight pages long.
“I thought, this is a beautiful song, but nobody will ever want this,” Marsha says. “Boy, was I wrong. I do like the shorter version.”
Marsha travels regularly to Charlotte to buy music, either to Brodt’s or Music and Arts.
“You just have to figure out what student goes with what book,” she says.
She admits that while a student might not like a song the first time he or she plays it, it has the potential to become a favorite piece.
She remembers one student who could play music, “but she didn’t get it.”
“Then one week, she just got it,” she says. “She was playing from her soul. Everything just came together in her mind.”
It made Marsha cry.
Before the afternoon ends, Marsha pulls out a Brahms Intermezzo she’s learning from the MTA literature.
It’s a beautiful piece.
You listen, and you suddenly realize what you’re hearing.
Marsha is playing from her soul.