“Music saved my mother’s life,” Judy Neville, Gratz Opus 118 Music & Dance founder said.
Adeline Erwin, Judy’s mother, was an African American school girl in the 1930’s. She felt like she didn’t belong. In those days, elementary schools were segregated, but high school was not. Adeline felt awkward walking the halls of her Topeka Kansas, the capital of the state, which in 1954 would become world renowned for the Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka. This is the Supreme Court case that officially ended segregation of schools in the U.S high school. She was taller than her peers and the target of racism from students and teachers. But her choir teacher saw beyond Adeline’s appearance. She saw the gift of music beaming from Adeline’s spirit.
“Music made my mother unique,” Judy said. “It gave her a different outlook on life.”
However, it would take tremendous courage for Adeline to share this gift with others. She got her chance at a school assembly in the gymnasium. Of course, it would have been easier to hide behind the bleachers. But that’s not Adeline. With encouragement of her choir teacher, Adeline preformed a complicated piano piece called Prelude in C# Minor, Op. 2, No. 3 by Sergei Rachmaninoff in front of the entire school. There was a collective shock followed by a roaring applause.
Afterwards, things changed.
The same white classmates that would gawk at Adeline started talking to her about music. Students asked how she accomplished the trickiest part of the piece. Adeline saw that the magic of music transcended race and class. Music was something she pursued from that moment until she turned 100 years old.
It wasn’t an easy beginning. At 9 years old, Adeline was fortunate to receive piano lessons, even though her family was poor. In fact, her father was a janitor and would take sheet music that was thrown away. In an era where there weren’t many opportunities for African American women, music gave Adeline wings. When Adeline graduated high school, she enrolled in Washburn University and graduated with a degree in Music Education.
“Music gave her an opportunity to get out of town,” Judy said.
Adeline taught music all over the country. In 1947, she married Rev. J Otis Erwin and welcomed 3 daughters into the world. Judy grew up in a home filled with music. One of Judy’s favorite days of the month was when a record from Columbia Record Club would arrive. She remembers listening to the classical record and seeing the love of the music in her mother’s eyes. Some of her fondest childhood memories was sharing music with her mother and watching her play complicated pieces.
“My mother gave me piano lessons and said that I was her best student,” Judy said.
Adeline celebrated her 100th birthday on July 3rd and played piano as long as she could. Adeline passed away one month later in August. She may be gone from this earth, but her legacy lives on through Judy and her sisters. The gift of music that Adeline gave to Judy is joyfully shared with Judy’s students at Gratz Opus 118 Music & Dance. She guides her students find the music within. She has students of all ages and backgrounds, proving once more that music connects us all.
“Music is a lifelong pursuit,” Judy said.
For Judy, her mother’s story inspires Judy to vocalize the value of music and that is okay to be different. Judy enjoys working with her students and seeing what they can create and encouraging them to cherish their artistic gifts.
“I encourage my students because my mother encouraged me,” Judy said. “That will always part of my teaching.”