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I was born into a family of musicians. My grandfather was one of ten brothers who grew up in the far west of England in the village of Pillowell in the Forest of Dean. I have often imagined how the tiny Methodist Chapel resounded when they all sang there as young men. Five of the brothers came to Canada in the early years of the twentieth century, and now I have countless cousins throughout the country, many of whom I have never met. On occasion, I meet a new cousin only to discover that this one is a violinist, and that the other relatives on that branch of the James family include pianists, string or wind players, and of course everyone sings. One of my earliest memories is of the extended family singing hymns in my grandfather’s living room. After listening for a short time, I whispered to my mother, “Why doesn’t Grandpa sing the right notes?” My Mother’s response was, “That’s called tenor.”
My own Father was a pianist. When I was born, he was teaching at rural schools in Alberta. He volunteered as a cornet player in a local Salvation Army silver band, and he supplemented his small income by tuning pianos. We never ate in the dining room of our home because it was full of old pianos in various stages of repair. Before I was old enough to receive instruction in music, I had already tried out lots of ideas on the dining room treasures. When I was four, my Father decided to pursue further university studies; I remember the sale and the getting ready to move at the end of the school year. Before we were actually to move, we went to visit my Mother’s parents for a week. Somehow during that week, my Father contracted Polio, and within another week he had died.
Life for the rest of us had to go on, so my Mother decided that since all our possessions were already sold, we would indeed move. We moved to Summerland, B.C. where my Father had grown up and where his parents and his brother and family still lived. My Mother, who hadn’t had the advantage of an extensive education, was determined that her three children would not suffer the same disadvantage. Throughout our growing up years, we always took piano lessons, even though her seasonal wage from the fruit packing house was excruciatingly small. I will always be grateful for her sacrifices to give us a musical education.
When I was fourteen, I discovered a small sort of suitcase thing stored away on a shelf in our home. It was my Father’s tuning kit. I decided I would learn how to use the tools it contained. I found the address of a piano technician correspondence school and signed up for the basic course. Learning to tune a piano was almost second nature to me, for I had been listening to the intervals and beats that the course described for my entire life; now I was discovering how those intervals and beats made up an equally tempered scale. I later got to learn some very practical skills by working with some technicians in Calgary.
My Mother often said that I was very much like my Dad, and now that I think of it, the parallels between our lives have been quite remarkable. I too became a school teacher and tuned pianos on Saturdays and sometimes after school. After five years of teaching, I too decided to pursue further studies. Fortunately, I survived to complete a masters degree in choral conducting and a Ph.D. in music history. I have spent various periods teaching music at the elementary, secondary, and university levels, but I have never stopped tuning pianos. There is just something about a newly tuned and regulated piano that makes music making an absolute delight.
My wife and I have tried to provide our own three children with the opportunity to play a musical instrument. They are now on the threshold of adult life and all three have chosen to pursue music studies at the university level (three more cousin‘s for somebody to discover). What is it about this family and music? I think we all agree that music is one of God’s gifts to us that demonstrates and shares His exquisite beauty, creativity and steadfast love.