Striking A Deal- Piano Lessons for a Portrait

Artist: Firmin Baes, 1899, "The Piano Lesson", painting on canvas,

Belgium Artist: Firmin Baes, 1899, “The Piano Lesson”, painting on canvas,

Family history often reduces people into short summaries and that was certainly the case for me with Edith and Paul’s legacies growing up. The short version of their lives was the flat “Edith sang. Paul played piano.” To my surprise when I dug around I certainly found more than that. Edith’s talents extended to the piano as well as vocals. She handled languages well and she had a knack for socializing an evening party. Paul’s musical talent was extensive at the piano as well as the cello, organ, and he was skilled at composition, arrangements, conducting and being a leader for his fellow musicians. Tapped again and again with the task to accompany both debut and established singers he had a smooth ability for both exquisite piano work and showcasing his singer onstage, which of course they loved him for it.

Monogrammed 'EVR' Envelope, August 1903, New York City to Rutland, Vermont

Monogrammed ‘EVR’ Envelope, August 1903, New York City to Rutland, Vermont

In her letters Edith certainly presents a multitude of interests that transforms her from ” just a singer” to a vibrant young lady involved in musical interests, her friends, evening social events, fashion and religion. She takes charge of details and isn’t shy to tell her mother about a new shirt waist that needs extra starch so that it “doesn’t hang like a rag” and the necessity of rejecting a newly made blouse a tailor made too large. Her mother in Rutland has some hired household help (named Alma) to assist with the washing and ironing and Edith relays very specific instructions about how the different fabrics should be handled to the point of well I hate to say it but “extreme bossiness.” Or cough, cough …you could insert other adjectives. She volunteers in one letter “I forgot to tell you about my new linen skirt. When Alma irons it I wish she would be careful + iron up + down the skirt not around it as it will stretch and I don’t want it to loop out around the hips. So have her be sure + not stretch it that way – then that thin white waist which Papa bought when down here. I think needs a little starch so that it won’t be limp as a rag and I wish A.(Alma) would iron it carefully as it is a very pretty waist. If you have time I wish you would put a band across the waist line in back where you see it pinned out so I will have something a little substantial to pin into.“(Aug 9, 1903)

Anyway among the minutia details of vocal lessons, fabric choices and sightseeing adventures (see the previous five or so posts) packed in a few letters one can also glean the fact of Edith’s ability on the piano. It seems that she struck a deal that in exchange for her drawn portrait she would give piano lessons. And this wasn’t the first time Edith had taken on the role of a piano teacher.

Miss Margaret McKay who had begun to board with Miss Schirmer earlier in the summer had started to use Edith as a model for some of her sketch work. One drawing in particular was turning out well and her likeness was “true”. Edith started to secretly wish she could have it. Edith wrote home in June of 1903 “Miss McKay is making a picture of me – a sketch in pastels of the whole figure. I’ve had two sittings and it is coming out very well. She says she doesn’t know how good a likeness she will get, as that is an uncertain thing. She says that if is a very good piece of work she may want to keep it as it may help her get into the illustrating class and on the other hand if it looks like me and is good she would like to give it to Miss Schirmer. I wish she would give it to me so I could give it to you, but we’ll have to see, perhaps we will get it in the end.

By August Miss McKay had moved out and readied to begin at Teacher’s College at Columbia. She may or may not made the piece a part of her entrance portfolio, but the drawing did make it back to Edith’s possession just as she had hopedfor. Miss McKay’s autobiographical writings in The Parson School archive and Edith’s own surviving letters indicate that when Edith returned to Vermont on the train for a week long visit with her parents in August 1903 she took the drawn portrait with her as a gift. Edith’s letter home in mid- August indicate that she had taken on Miss McKay as a beginning student who came for half hour lessons on the piano twice a week. Edith asked her mother to retrieve from the attic her old beginner’s instruction book that she used for lessons previously for “all the children”. She felt sure it would be in the attic (oh the attic!) but if it wasn’t stored there than her very last student “Lea” would have it. Edith was trying to remember the different lessons in the book for Miss McKay who she describes “She has had eight lessons in her life and is simply crazy to get so she can play a little, so I offered to help her…”

A written insert note in a large decorative bible presented to Edward Vail Ross from the Methodist congregation in Poultney, VT expressing their gratitude for his Organ playing., 1877

A written insert note in a large decorative bible presented to Edward Vail Ross from the Methodist congregation in Poultney, VT expressing their gratitude for his Organ playing., 1877

It is logical that Edith would be thoroughly schooled in the piano as both of her parents were musical as well. Edward Vail Ross played the organ for his Methodist Church in Poultney, Vermont as a young man in the 1870’s and it was there that he spent time courting his bride-to-be Helen S. Beals who sang in the choir. Helen could also play piano and a few surviving letters written in the 1860’s from her own grandmother, Amanda Parker, encouraged the young Helen “Nellie” Beals to have a new song ready on the piano the next time she (Grandmother Parker) came to visit. It is no surprise then that in 1903 Edith’s parents encouraged and supported her dreams of a singing career.

About Guenevere Crum

Guenevere Crum is an artist and a great granddaughter of Edith and Paul Eisler. She has been actively sleuthing her Eisler - Vail Ross heritage since 1999.
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