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Strains of Music

Old sheet music
Remember "Strains of Music" in the 300 block of West Evans Street?

In the late 1950's Hal Strain owned and operated this popular music store in downtown Florence, offering a variety of instruments for music students and band members. My own interest started and stopped at a set of vertical stands in the main room of the old house; sheet music.

Spring time always brings back sometimes pleasant, sometimes unsettling memories of music recitals, marking the end of one musical academic year and the beginning of summer vacation. Independence from scales, finger exercises and the classics was granted in the summer. That's when we made occasional forays to Strains for popular sheet music.

My piano teacher Mrs. Westcott didn't allow such things inside her piano studio. No popular pieces, no folk music or even hymns were permitted to be played there, nothing but Standard instruction books with the works of Chopin, Beethoven, Strauss, Mozart - you get the idea. Strictly classicals, strictly as-written, strictly no fun stuff allowed. Well, for nine months out of the year, twice a week I sat on her piano bench with Mrs. Westcott to the right of me, baton in her hand and voice in my ear. "Count, Bette, you must always remember to count." One-and, two-and, three-and, we would count. Or if we were struggling with eighth or sixteenth notes it might be "one-and-ah, two-and-ah."

Sometime in late winter we would select our recital pieces. I say "we" but really it was her selection. She would make a pretense of giving us piano pupils a choice but the choice was limited to two or three pieces in our grade range. I remember quite a few of those recitals, nerves and all. Pretty frilly dresses for the girls, dress slacks and shirts for the boys. Our recital hall seemed to change every year. One year it was the museum, one year Hodges Piano and Organ on North Coit Street, and one year the auditorium upstairs at the Library. No matter what the venue, the atmosphere was the same, stage fright and nervousness. Squirming in my seat as I waited my turn, I would use my knees as a makeshift keyboard and rehearse my own piece over and over. "Can't you be still," my mother would whisper. No, I couldn't, I was terrified I would forget the whole thing. If I didn't do well, then I might not get a shopping trip to Strains of Music! Somehow I always played well enough to earn a "well done" from Mrs. Westcott, a hug from my parents, and reassurance that my reward would be forthcoming. Sheet music!

The summer months were a wonderful mix of play times. Some outdoor fun time was spent in Circle Park or Timrod Park and some was spent at Mimi and Da's farm. But a great deal of fun time was spent indoors at the piano, picking out the melody of big band numbers from the movies or direct from The Hit Parade on television. For special treats mama brought home entire music books like Hits of the Forties or the Best of Guy Lombardo. It was easy to keep my fingers and brain limber during the summer months, I'd just turn on the radio, flip through pages to the appropriate piece, and follow along while listening to real musicians play the real thing.

Strains of Music moved from Florence to Waynesville, North Carolina in 1961. Other music stores contained sheet music and music books of course, and over the years I've shopped in every one Florence had, I think. But the last time I went looking for sheet music was not in an actual store, it was on-line nowadays you can simply plug in your credit card number and print your own pages right off your computer printer. It's not the same, though. The paper is smaller and the musical notes are smaller. I'd rather push open the door with the jingly bell and smell the aroma of new guitars, band instruments, polishes and wax. I'd rather finger the metal racks and flip through the piano pieces, sniff that velvety, woodsy paper and visualize big bands playing those wonderful numbers. I could look at the bars of music on the page and hear the song in my head, despite the sounds of customers in the background thrumming the strings of a guitar or banjo.

Some months ago my daughter brought me a little present, a very old piece of sheet music. "Kiss Me Good Night (Out the Window You Must Go)." I'd never heard of it before but the words are catchy and cute. Copyrighted in 1913, it was probably printed in the 1920's. As I took the piece out of its protective plastic cover, the woodsy velvety feel and smell of the paper took me right back to Strains of Music, like it was just yesterday. What a thoughtful gift!


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