Sun City women seize opportunity to learn piano in their 70s

It’s never too late to learn. That’s the mantra Ruth Johnson has taken to heart.

At 70, she took a leap of faith and changed a lifelong yearning to play the piano into a reality. Now 85, she gives recitals at Desert Spring United Methodist Church, 120 N. Pavilion Center Drive. Her latest was March 10.

She credits her success to the late Bernard Baskin, from whom she took lessons for four years.

"He helped me with my fingering," she said. "He said, ‘You should touch the key so it brings out the story of the piece.’ "

Last September, she played a benefit, which raised $400. Half went to the Florence McClure Scholarship for the American Association of University Women. The other half went to the church’s building fund. Usually, she plays for free.

When she performs, her music follows themes. One, for example, was on relationships and included "Pick of My Heart," "Sweet Georgia Brown," "My Funny Valentine" and "Misty."

Mary Lee, 82, another Sun City Summerlin resident, played a duet with Johnson at the March 10 event. She began taking lessons at 78.

Lee recalled being on her grandparents’ dairy farm in upstate New York and wanting to learn to play. But the Great Depression meant there was no money for lessons. Instead, she pretended to play piano on the kitchen table. Now, she said it was fun to play a duet with Johnson.

"If she has another recital, I’ll practice up on my Chopin piece and try to do it myself," she said.

Johnson said she had always longed to play the instrument. When she was 10, her sister got bored with her piano lessons, so Johnson took over for the final four months, paying 25 cents a lesson.

At 12, she studied for a few months with an elementary teacher. The teacher charged 50 cents a lesson.

"My dad discouraged me from going into music because he said, ‘You’ll never make money,’ " she said.

Johnson took piano for one quarter in college but was so far behind that her instructor gave her a C, bringing down her grade-point average. She gave up and became a science and math teacher instead.

She met her husband, Cameron, who would become a United Methodist minister, in 1950. They married the following year. Ruth Johnson took on the role of minister’s wife and handled church duties. They raised five children.

Every place they were sent – Williston, Jamestown, Bismarck, Rugby and Fargo, all in North Dakota, and Green Valley, Ariz. – the church already had an organist or pianist, so learning to play was not a factor.

Cameron Johnson retired in 1995, and the couple moved to Las Vegas.

Since college in 1947, she had not touched a piano, though the desire still flickered inside.

"I always thought I wasn’t good enough," she said.

Fifty years after the attempt in college, she made up her mind to go for it. What prompted her to begin lessons at 70?

"I was singing with the Musicmakers here in Sun City, and Bernard was (the speaker), and when he introduced himself, he said he was a nationally certified music teacher. And my heart just jumped. I said to myself, ‘If he’ll take me as a student, I’ll start.’ "

She said she revered Baskin because of his career as a composer and pianist. Within a week, she had an appointment for her first hourlong lesson. This time, it was $40 an hour.

"I had trouble finding his house," she recalled. "I was late and apologized … I was so nervous, he actually left and went into the kitchen. He thought maybe if he left the room, I’d feel better. He did that on several occasions. One thing I liked about him was that he was always patient and never said anything negative."

Johnson admits she always had a tendency to hurry through a piece. Baskin countered that by having her practice so slowly, she couldn’t possibly make a single mistake. It was a technique based on science.

"When you practice and go fast and make a mistake, your brain registers that," she said. "And then you have to retrain your brain to get rid of that mistake."

Practicing slowly avoids the possibility of the brain imprinting mistakes.

The weekly lessons saw her going through lesson books one after another as she progressed. She noticed her fingers could stretch farther, reaching more keys. After four years, she was confident in her abilities and stopped taking lessons.

Her first recital was 12 years ago. Baskin attended and wrote her a note of congratulations afterward. She has it in a scrapbook.

It reads: "I was very proud of you for a grand effort. You sat there in control … It was an extreme pleasure to hear you and teach you. You had a few surprises for me, but I took them in stride."

Since then, she’s performed a recital every year since, all of them at Desert Spring, using its Schimmel grand piano.

Giving recitals helped her overcome her fear of performing. She recalled mentioning her nerves to a stranger who gave her this advice: Imagine the end, getting off the piano and receiving two thumbs up. She still gets nervous but uses that visualization technique each time, she said. As many as 50 people attend her recitals.

"You’re never too old to learn something," she said.

Contact Summerlin/Summerlin South View reporter Jan Hogan at jhogan@viewnews.com or 387-2949.

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