By MARY RICHE
DES MOINES, Iowa, March 1, 2023 — I don’t have family dishes or silverware that were passed on to me by my parents. I was given a stack of sheet music, mostly hymns for the piano, because my parents Verda and Frank Riche witnessed music pouring out of me from the time I was a toddler taking my first steps.
My feet would dangle from the piano bench as I sat next to my mother when she played the piano. I loved hearing her play those hymns in our farmhouse living room in northeast Iowa. She would sing along in her soprano voice that warbled, though that didn’t dampen her enthusiasm. Or mine! We spent hours singing around that spinet piano, and I treasure those memories more each day as I age.
Mother found a piano teacher for me when I was 4 years old. I recollect it might have been Neva Pond in the nearby small town of Stanley, and she must have been a saint. Can you imagine trying to teach me, a curious 4-year old child, probably with an attitude and limited patience, to play the piano?
My piano lessons continued when I also started lessons, in the third grade, on the alto saxophone – at the suggestion of my then-piano teacher. She worried I was losing interest in the piano because I wanted to play more popular tunes than gospel hymns.
I loved playing the alto saxophone. As a sixth grader, when I wasn’t yet 11 years old, I was moved up from the Stanley Elementary School to play in the Oelwein High School concert and marching band.
Those memories are clear and bittersweet. Of course, I was not welcomed by those high school teens when I was only a sixth grader playing second chair alto saxophone. However, I loved marching with the band in the parade for the Waterloo Dairy Cattle Congress, even though I looked a bit silly in my uniform and hat that were too big for my sixth grader’s short body.
Snapshot of a 10-year-old Mary Riche ready for her first Oelwein High School marching band appearance.
Marching with the Oelwein High band in Waterloo.
By the time I was in junior high (seventh and eighth grades in those days,) I was a full-fledged accompanist for plays and other musical events beyond church. I was a pretty good sight reader which holds true today. That also means I’m no fun at a party because I don’t play “by ear.” However, if you’ve got the sheet music, put on your dancing shoes and sing in your best voice because we’re going to have some fun!
In high school, I was playing the piano at church, school, and for community theater, and alto saxophone in jazz and concert bands. In my sophomore year, the music teacher asked me to learn the oboe for concert band. That was O.K., though I preferred the alto sax, especially in jazz band and pep band performances where I got to wail with a solo during the song “Scotch and Soda.” Those performances remain tops in my favorite high school music memories.
For the first 18+ years of my life, playing the piano, alto saxophone, oboe, and singing were as much a part of me as being a farm girl in rural Iowa.
I’ve owned a few different pianos since I bought my first home in 1976.
My favorite was a baby grand, and some of my favorite times as a stepmother to Sam Spade were around that piano. I loved his rich baritone voice that earned him numerous solos with the Roosevelt High School swing choir, Matins choir at Plymouth Church, and Iowa’s All-State Chorus. His talent also earned him a scholarship to Indiana University where he received both his undergraduate and graduate degrees in vocal performance. Today, he’s a section leader, singing in the church choir at Northminster Church in Indianapolis, Ind., while his full-time work is in the compliance department of a mortgage company.
I hope he’ll fondly remember my enthusiasm and warbly alto voice the same way I remember those times around the Riche family piano when I was growing up.
Baby grand pianos take up a lot of space, so I switched to an upright Kawai piano that I’ve had for several years. My husband Chuck Offenburger and I have spent a lot of happy hours at that piano in the past year. I play and he sings; sometimes I sing harmony. Our best duets are those by the Everly Brothers.
On the Kawai piano in the living room.
She may be at her happiest when she’s playing that piano.
At Shenandoah High School, Chuck was selected to sing in the All-State Chorus three times. At Oelwein High, I was selected to play my alto saxophone in the All-State Orchestra, though once again Chuck’s memory is razor-sharp about the history and experience at those events. My recollection is much fuzzier.
In high school, I fancied myself a performer prancing around the Riche farm singing “Don’t Rain on My Parade” from the film version of “Funny Girl.” That soundtrack, featuring the incredible voice of Barbra Streisand, was the first album I bought with my own money. I also did a pretty good imitation of Ethel Merman singing “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” though my parents did not like the idea of my becoming a showgirl.
Today, around the house, I’ll sing along with my favorite singers P!nk, Linda Ronstadt, Dolly Parton, Kelly Clarkson, Norah Jones, K.D. Lange, Adele and of course, Barbra Streisand.
Chuck and I have long histories of singing in church. Chuck has sung in church choirs for most of his adult life, while I spent my early childhood and all my teenage years singing or playing piano for services at the Stanley Union Church. At Plymouth Church, 30 years ago, I was the accompanist for the fifth grade choir.
Today, Chuck and I harmonize from the church pews during worship services every Sunday, and we truly enjoyed singing last summer in the informal Plymouth summer choir.
As he does often in our Des Moines home, the other night Chuck requested I play a few songs on the piano, so I pulled out some hymns. My heart trembled when we looked at the cover of the sheet music at the top of the pile.
On the cover, in my mother’s handwriting, was the date of purchase (1957) and my age (9 years) and another note that said: “You sang this in church when you were 4 years old.”
The sheet music that was on top of the pile the other night. And see the close-up below.
This close-up shows the note from Mary’s mother.
My mother always labeled everything with the date of purchase, using masking tape and a sharpie. I used to think that was a silly thing to do — until I started doing the same thing with my sharpie about 20 years ago, reminding me of that great quote by Mark Twain: “The older I get, the smarter my parents become.”
That song, “It Is No Secret (What God Can Do),” is by Stuart Hamblin. He was a cowboy singer songwriter, and we were a household that loved country music, gospel hymns, and the “Lawrence Welk Show” with that honky-tonk pianist I loved to imitate, Jo Ann Castle.
Almost 71 years have passed since I sang that song at church, yet the lyrics came flooding back as soon as I played the first chord:
It is no secret, what God can do.
What He’s done for others, He’ll do for you.
With arms wide open, He’ll pardon you.
It is no secret, what God can do.
Even with Chuck singing and sitting on the bench at my side, I closed my eyes and was that little 4-year-old girl singing at the top of her lungs and loving every note and word. The rhythm, melody, and lyrics created such deep emotions they seemed to flow directly out of my soul!
Thank you, Verda Mae Watson Riche, for opening the world of music to me.
Thank you, Frank Henry Riche, for clapping the loudest at any of my performances – especially those at home when I played honky-tonk and imitated Jo Ann Castle or Francis Craig playing “Near You.”
Thank you to my sister Betty Kae Riche Bobcowski, for holding a flashlight while also spinning the world globe for our duet, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” in the New Year’s Eve show when you were 7½ years old and I was 10.
It is no secret what God can do.
A pianist grateful for the early inspiration.
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