Kansas State Teachers College and the Lab School — Always About Music — Always

by Brenda Casey on June 30, 2015

In retrospect, I’m amazed at the musical education I received at a very young age — a testament to the vision and dedication of the professional educators of the time, especially those at Kansas State Teachers College and the Lab School (my elementary school located on campus).

From my early kindergarten days I can remember how quiet we were told to be when we played outside in the schoolyard right behind the Music Hall — the big, big building that continuously reverberated with music — mostly coming from practice rooms on the third floor: trumpets, pianos, violins, sopranos, tenors, baritones… Jumbled cacophonous musical sounds were always streaming out the open windows while we played in the sandbox or on the swings, or walked on little stilts. In later years, we were allowed to roller skate on campus — but only on the other side of the school. Away from the Music Hall.

The kindergarten music teacher’s name was Miss Strauss. (How fitting, I now realize.) There was a piano in the classroom, and when Miss Strauss began to play, that signaled the beginning of class. At nap time, we each took our little rugs from our lockers to lie down and Miss Strauss played the Brahms Lullaby as we drifted off to sleep. Rousing march music meant it was time to get up.

The Lab School faculty was entirely made up of women. All graduates of Columbia Teachers College in NYC. All with scary sounding names. The first three grades were known to be pretty easy and fun. Teachers came and went. But when you got to the 4th grade, all that changed. Miss Vollrath was waiting. And she was a no-nonsense teacher. In the 5th grade, Miss Franz took over. Even scarier. Miss Otterstrom in the 6th grade was pretty nice, but that year the principal suddenly made her VERY scary presence felt throughout the school. Ina M. Borman wore her hair in a tight bun, and ruled imperiously from her office desk next to the main door of the school. She was always there. Except when she got up to walk down the hall. VERY tense, those moments. If she happened to glance into your classroom, even the teacher stopped talking. I never saw her smile. But then, principals didn’t smile in those days. They kept order.

Miss Jeffrey — later Mrs. Ives — was the real joy. The school music teacher everyone loved. We had music class every day. She started all the songs we sang from our songbooks with a pitch pipe. We had musical spelldowns, and musical blackboard competitions. Who could draw the best whole note on the staff: Brenda or Stuart? It was usually Stuart. But that was OK, because one day Miss Jeffrey discovered I had perfect pitch. She would have me stand and look away from the piano while she played a note. When I told her what it was, she would look meaningfully at the student teachers seated around the room observing. It never seemed like a big deal to me till then. I assumed everyone had perfect pitch.

We learned to read music and heard stories of the operas and always listened to a record at the end of class. My favorite was “Waltz of the Flowers” from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite. We all got to dance around the room and be flowers. Then the Kansas City Philharmonic came to play in Emporia. And it was on the program. I was astounded by the harp arpeggio at the start of the piece. Hearing it in person was so much different from the classroom record. It was so very exciting to see a real harp played and the other members of the orchestra playing the instruments we had learned all about beforehand. Major moment in my musical life. Probably 2nd or 3rd grade. In the 5th grade, Miss Jeffrey (now Mrs. Ives) helped us each choose a musical instrument to learn to play. I remember the day she opened a case and showed me a flute. A solemn moment. It looked intimidating. I think I asked if that was really a flute. (I thought a flute was just a silver column you blew into.) And she said, “Don’t embarrass me!” So I took it home, worked hard, and finally managed to make a sound after the third week of lessons with Mr. Weigand, the school band and orchestra director. I went on to play in the 5th grade band, the 6th grade orchestra, and in a regional youth symphony, Emporia Neosho Valley Youth Symphony (ENVY). Rehearsals were on Saturday mornings, so I rode my bike back to campus with my flute in the basket throughout the 6th grade. It was directed by Leopold Liegl, the college orchestra conductor, who ultimately became my flute teacher through junior high and high school. All I can remember rehearsing was Wagner’s Introduction to Act III of Lohengrin. Over and over and over.

My first piano teacher was Mrs. Penna. She lived just across the street from the school and took students starting in the first grade. Mrs. Penna and my mother ended each of our dreaded spring recitals in the Broadview Hotel ballroom by playing a two piano selection. I still have copies of the collection they used. Pat and I have even found a few arrangements in the worn books worth including in our concerts.

I began to study piano in the 6th grade with a college faculty member, Miss M. Irene Johnson. She didn’t smile a lot either. I took weekly lessons in her studio in the Music Hall till high school graduation. Musically, I did OK and usually went in each week prepared. She obviously expected that from all her students. Especially the 6th graders. What she really didn’t like was that occasionally I showed up with a sprained thumb from playing baseball in the neighborhood lot. One week she issued a two-part ultimatum: either baseball or piano was the first part. The second part was to STOP playing popular songs I had picked up from the radio and was playing by ear for fun. I had tried to play my version of “Tennessee Waltz” for her. Bad idea. Big lecture from my mother when I got home. Nobody lectured Aunt Martha or Aunt Tad when they played it. Or “Easter Parade” or “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” But they are not piano pupils of Miss Johnson’s, said my mother, who paid college rates monthly for the lessons. End of discussion.

Eventually, there was a truce. I was one of three students selected to give a solo piano recital at the end of our sophomore year in high school on the stage of the Music Hall auditorium. I still remember Miss Johnson backstage dimming the house lights, bringing up the stage lights, and saying “Now!” — the cue to walk on stage and bow before beginning to play. The program had been memorized months earlier, and it didn’t seem like a big thing at the time because there were three of us doing it that summer. My recital was on July 5th. But it did seem slightly surreal at our Boulder concert on July 5, 2015, to look out and see my daughter and family in the audience, as well as the second of Miss Johnson’s three high school students to give a recital that same summer in the Music Hall auditorium. That person was Franny Ashby Gabrielson who now lives in Lyons, CO, and drove with her husband to Boulder to hear our concert. What an extraordinary treat to see her again after many years of being out of touch. A musical journey had come full circle. It was a fitting end to our first ACKC Concert Tour!

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