Naomi Chipman

Often, I look back at my youth and wonder why I hated piano lessons so much. Part of it was probably because my mother made me practice for 30 minutes each day. I liked toying with the piano for fun, on my terms,  but I resented being forced into anything.

While attending LDS Seminary classes at Valley Junior High School, and later at Granger High School, I became the expected pianist. My instructors often expected me to sit at the piano bench and choose a hymn to start the class. If one of them asked politely, then how could a kid like me refuse, in front of 20 or more classmates who were expecting me to perform?

I was the usually the only one in my class who knew how to play any hymns on the piano. Some people praised me for having this talent. It never seemed to me that playing the piano was a talent; it was sitting on a hard wooden bench every day, trying to learn songs I did not particularly like.

My first piano teacher, Naomi Chipman, was a jewel. She was a plump, cheerful woman, who lived in a modest house in South Salt Lake City, not far from Stratford Avenue where I spent the first 9 years of my life. She taught dozens of children how to play the piano, including some of my schoolmates.

Naomi Chipman

Naomi Chipman, about 1971.

Naomi enjoyed her pet – a black poodle she named Midnight – and wanted to offer a similar opportunity to me. My mother must have agreed with Naomi in advance, because she was not surprised when we made a special visit to the Chipman home to pick up a small black mixed breed poodle pup. She was my dog, and I named her Betsy.

Naomi knew how to help me de-stress. If I was struggling with a classical tune, she might pause and bring out chocolate chip cookies from her freezer to share with me and my sisters.  I remember talking to her, in private, as she made another suggestion to me for dealing with stress, or traumatic events. I could write my feelings on paper, as a way of letting them go, or releasing stress. When I felt better, I could rip-up the paper, so nobody needed to read it. This was one thing that spawned my interest in writing.

She sometimes shared stories about people she met at her other job. When a certain man exclaimed, “Gee, you’re fat!” she replied, “Yes, but my husband likes me that way.”

Naomi’s health declined enough that she and her husband decided it would be best to discontinue her piano teaching. My mother didn’t let that stop me from rehearsing, or taking lessons. She sent my sister Joy and I to a different teacher who lived closer to us.

I visited Naomi a few times after that, with my dog Betsy, but we hardly ever talked about the piano. I don’t think I ever played her piano again.

In Livingston, Montana a member of the bishopric in my church met with me in private one day, and asked me to be the ward organist. I was almost overwhelmed with anxiety. While I had created a nice comfort zone there, playing piano for the primary children, I had never played a church organ.

I understand this happens to hundreds of pianists every year. Many of them don’t really want to learn the pedalboard, so they make due with two or three manual keyboards, which is similar to an ordinary piano. Some organs have a switch which will link or activate some bass notes from the manual keys alone. This can somewhat compensate for a musician who has no pedalboard skills.

In accepting this church calling, I decided it was a great opportunity to learn the pedalboard. In order to do this, I rehearsed footwork on the church organ, while resting my hands. I learned that there were special organ shoes to help people use the pedalboard more efficiently. Some organists prefer playing without shoes. I needed some extra help, so I ordered a pair of organ shoes.

SJB at organ

James Beall, in Livingston Ward Chapel

In the years since I left Montana, I have rarely been able to rehearse the organ, and only rehearse piano hymns at church, between meetings. You see, I do not own a piano, or organ. I would not know where to put a piano in my small home, if someone gave me one.


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