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Artifact of the Month: Music Teachers and Lessons in Letters–Vera at the Piano

Posted by on September 16, 2013

Vera at the Piano (detail)

Vera at the Piano (detail)

When I was a kid, there was a huge piano in our house. I took lessons for many years, liked to practice, and have 3 songs in my repertoire. My childhood piano currently resides in my home (which incidentally was the residence of a piano teacher in the 1930s), but it remains mostly dormant. It is a lovely receptacle for photographs, vases, report cards, and other miscellaneous remnants of our lives.

A few years ago I received a phone call from a man in San Jose. He owned a painting of a Santa Cruz piano teacher and wanted to donate it to the MAH. I wondered if it was the same piano teacher that had once lived in my home, the one I secretly hoped would haunt my house in the middle of the night. I’ve been waiting to wake up to the melodies of a lone pianist. But that hasn’t happened, and the painting isn’t of my phantom musician.

Generations of Santa Cruzans may remember taking piano lessons from Vera McKenna Clayton. Born in Oakland in 1871, Vera moved to Santa Cruz in the early 1920s with her husband, Donald. Their Broadway St. home must have been a music lover’s dream with a parlor equipped with two grand pianos and an organ in the living room.

An accomplished musician and composer, Vera is credited to writing “Floating Down the San Lorenzo River,” published by the Santa Cruz Chamber of Commerce for the 1928 Santa Cruz Water Pageant. She also penned the 160th birthday song for the City of Santa Cruz in 1929. Vera died in 1978.

Sybil Hunnington, Vera at the Piano, pastel on paper

Sybil Hunington, Vera at the Piano, pastel on paper

In the painting, Vera at the Piano (by artist Sybil Hunington) we encounter a woman in a classic three quarter portrait. It’s a very French inspired, Rococo-esque composition of light and lyrical pastel hues. Vera is sweetly smiling, turning a page of music at the moment we stumble upon her practicing in the parlor. She’s looking at us perhaps about to say: “Oh this old thing? Did you like it? I just composed it this morning.”

I met William J. Adams, Jr. in 2004 when he came to the MAH to donate the painting. Mr. Adams is a graduate of Chaminade High School (Class of 1933). He married his childhood sweetheart, Maryjane, at Holy Cross Church in 1939. Maryjane’s piano teacher, Vera McKenna Clayton, played the organ at the ceremony. Mr. Adams gave me some biographical information about his wife and himself, and I thanked him for the painting.

I followed up with a formal letter of gratitude (standard practice), and so began my correspondence with Mr. Adams. Through the years, I have received updated information for the donor files. I look forward to these letters and enjoy writing back (never email), thanking him for the additional info, notifying him when the painting was on display, and sending my condolences when Maryjane passed away.

Upon receiving a letter this past summer, I wrote to thank him as usual. Instead of a reply from Mr. Adams, his daughter-in-law called to tell me that 96 year old Bill can’t drive to Santa Cruz anymore. He no longer writes much, yet Mr. Adams wanted to make sure my files were updated. It was important to him—and to me. As I write this, I have learned that Bill passed away last week. The file is complete.

I love that the story of an artifact doesn’t have to end with one account, but it can continue, overlap with another, and along the way connect others to it.  And so I add my story to Vera at the Piano. I didn’t take lessons from her and she didn’t live in my house, but I wouldn’t mind hearing Vera play my piano, preferably in the middle of the night.