Have you ever received a present that truly changed your life? Maybe you didn’t know it at the time, but looking back, it’s easy to see that if it hadn’t been for that one special gift, your life could easily have taken an entirely different path.

I am the founder of Singing Heart to Heart, a small business where I bring music into the lives of seniors, with a special focus on using music in dementia care. I’ve been a professional musician since I went away to college.

I’ve spent lots of time singing in bands – from rowdy bars to prestigious music festivals and concert halls. As a career educator, I taught music briefly. Over the years, I’ve worked as an agent for other folk musicians and as the entertainment manager for a large resort.

Music Has Always Been a Big Part of My Life

Do you remember green stamps? The grocery stores would issue them based on your purchase amount. You had to lick the back of them, then fit them into little square templates in small flip books.

There was something oddly satisfying about licking those stamps and sticking them in books. You could hold them in your hands and count them up.

Grocery stores published a printed catalog that told you how many books of stamps were required to ‘purchase’ a variety of items. After you collected a good many books of stamps it was time to go shopping. Most people, if I’m remembering correctly, used them to buy things like dishes.

Not my mom. My mom saved our family’s green stamps and used them to buy my first guitar. It was 1966. I was 12 years old, and it was Christmas. That year ‘Santa’ brought me a little black Kay guitar. It had a white note painted on the front.

This was definitely a beginner’s guitar, but I loved it immediately. I had been taking piano lessons for some time, but this was the ‘60s and folk music was a big thing. I loved to sing, and I wanted to play guitar like Peter Paul and Mary and so many others.

My mom assumed, rightly so I suppose, that I should have some lessons. She drove me downtown where I climbed the stairs to an apartment above the Salvation Army. I’ll never know how my mom found that teacher. But I remember she was tall and lean and wore plaid wool skirts.

She seemed very old to my 12-year-old self. She might have been over 60! Thinking back to that day and time it strikes me as unusual that the teacher was a woman. I like to think that my feminist mom went out of her way to assure that, but I’ll never know.

My First Music Teacher

I don’t recall her name, and it was probably because the lessons didn’t last long. My new guitar teacher, with wisdom I failed to recognize at the time, wanted to teach me how to play melody lines.

She started with Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star and I rebelled. Not during the lesson, of course. I was much too polite for that. But I went home and convinced my mother that these lessons were entirely unnecessary.

All I wanted to do was play chords, so I could accompany myself singing. Tom Dooley, Oh Mary Don’t You Weep and Lemon Tree were on my short list.

There was no shortage of songbooks around my musical home. So, I dug in and taught myself how to play, even mastering that pesky F chord, the B7 and more.

The fact that music has been such a large part of my life didn’t happen simply because I was given that little black Kay guitar. I could have let it sit in the corner. Clearly, I was motivated.

My mother recognized something in me and took a chance using up every last one of her green stamp books. But without that guitar… my life would never have been the same.

I am often asked how long I have been playing guitar and singing. One of my earliest memories is of sitting on a cement bench in our big backyard, singing, “Oh little playmate, come out and play with me…”

As I grew up, I often sang with my mother whose voice was a perfect match for mine. My dad had been a drummer, and his mother’s diary told of how he went to 28 dances in 30 days back when the big bands were touring rural America. Birthdays in my family meant going to Timmermans’ Supper Club to dance to live music.

That Little Black Kay Guitar

So you see, I grew up in a musical family. But if it hadn’t been for that one gift – that little black Kay guitar, I wonder what path my life would have taken.

Singing and playing guitar has enriched my life in so many ways. Playing music with others has given me my deepest friendships and my longest love.

It has put food on my table and given me a roof over my head. It has comforted me and helped me celebrate life – in equal measure. These days, I am often thanked for sharing music experiences with elders. In my heart I know I receive more than I give.

My mom passed away 28 years ago. But not before she could see my name in lights and watch her little girl use the talents that she had nourished with the gift of that little black Kay guitar.

I am forever grateful.

As you think back about your life’s work or the hobbies you are passionate about, is there a gift that changed your life? Maybe for you it was a chemistry set, a doctor’s kit, a baseball glove or an Easy Bake oven. I’d love to hear your story in the comments below.

Mary Sue WilkinsonMary Sue Wilkinson is the founder of Singing Heart to Heart. She is a musician, a speaker and the author of “Songs You Know By Heart: A Simple Guide for Using Music in Dementia Care.” She is passionate about the power of music. Prior to her work with seniors, Mary Sue was a career early childhood educator and music teacher. Learn more at SingingHeartToHeart.com.

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