Door Holders: Millie Bark

I spent some time this morning with my friend Hope, a woman with a passion for people and worship and the church who has challenged herself to stretch musically, spiritually, and as a leader. She’s growing, and it’s a beautiful thing.

We talked today about how to create intimacy in smaller worship settings. Both veterans of some very special Wednesday night gatherings in the not-too-distant past, we worked on ways to be intentional about making space for singing that felt authentic and right. My experience helps me enter into that space easily and relatively quickly; Hope asked, How do you do that? How can I learn to do that?

/ / /

Yes. That’s me. Sigh. 

Miss Scott was my 2nd grade teacher. At the annual school music program, I had a solo; “Bibbity-Bobbity-Boo”.

But what really mattered that year was this: I met Mrs. Mildred Bark, and I began piano lessons.

I’d love my mom’s commentary here, to find out her perspective on whether or not I practiced, on how much of a burden it was to drive me down into town every week to sit in Mrs. Bark’s studio and play for her. I need my mom’s memory to help here, because I don’t remember much at all about my behavior that first year.

But I do remember Mrs. Bark’s house, a huge (to an 8-year old) mansion on Elk Street. She rented out rooms to exotic, interesting Young People; theater folks. College kids. The young, single man who was teaching music at the local high school. There was always a mysterious, enticing buzz behind the double doors that led to her kitchen and living area; drinks and cigarettes and loud laughter. Occasionally the sound of tears. I only ever went back there once.

Past the double-door entry way was a small table with a round bowl sitting on top. Both antiques, always clean; the weekly check was to be placed in the bowl. I’d wait in a chair outside her study, and when the student before me finished, Mrs. Bark would welcome me in. Her gravely, smoke-studded voice greeted me and I walked into a haze to sit at the small spinet that faced the wall.

She sat behind me, always, at a drop-front desk; her long black cigarette filter perched between two fingers. Mrs. Bark was always dressed well, always composed, always bejeweled. She would scrawl practice notes in my psychedelic spiral notebook in a fancy, authoritative cursive.

In hindsight now, I realize that she must have been an utterly fascinating woman. A widow, she’d been active in several musical pursuits in our little town. Her husband, the late Mr. Charles Bark, had also been in the arts. After his death she taught students like me, and she took in boarders, and she moved in some artistic circles of which I – a little country girl – was completely unaware. She was old, to my eyes – but as I remember now, she must have been a relatively young widow.

I would very much like to know her, now.

So Mrs. Bark got me started, sitting behind me for those 30-minute segments of musical education. And I can’t remember a thing she did or said, but I remember the utter joy I discovered, my fingers finding a way to play “Baby Elephant Walk” and “Alley Cat”. I remember dragging a John Denver songbook to her, a few years in, and being excited about picking out the chords to “Annie’s Song”. I remember when, at the age of 11, I nearly gave up because “Brian’s Song” – and the key of A – nearly did me in, but Mrs. Bark and my mother pushed me through.

I don’t know this other than to have heard my mom say it, but I believe it must be true: Mrs. Bark let me make it up as I went along. She let me improvise, play to the beat of my own drummer. I suppose there must have been some talent there, along with a disciplined mom who made sure I practiced, but undoubtedly, the way Mrs. Bark taught me as a beginning piano student unlocked the key to a deep understanding and passion for the language of music that has served me well.

Oh, so well.

/ / /

Today, after some conversation, Hope and I moved into the Big Room at the church. I sat at the baby grand piano and demonstrated some chords; the resolution of the suspension in the melodic intro of “Cornerstone”. The open fifth of “I Am Set Free” that could lead to an easy key change for “Be Thou My Vision”. The way a spoken word transition could slip freely into the space between changing keys; the common tones between C and E and how they could become a fulcrum for change.

I talked to Hope a little about how it works for me, playing and singing.

“It is like breathing. It is a language, and my fingers know it as well as they know the enunciation of spoken words. The template of key changes is like changing dialects or accents; this is English, familiar – and then up a half step, that’s like French. And maybe now in ‘E’, that’s Russian…it is all the same meaning, just a different voice, and it means the same to me, save the different perspective. I just speak it, this language, and it is as simple as breathing in and breathing out. It just is.”

I kept talking, in part just to hear myself talk, because I’d never really said such things out loud much. But I was thinking about Mrs. Bark already, about this post, well-aware that I needed to find some words.

So here they are: To play the piano, for me, is to give utterance to the deepest part of my soul – and yet it is, in some ways, no different than speaking a simple sentence of greeting. Or of love. Or of sadness, or joy. Maybe that is why the moments of ‘worship’ – of singing with a directed audience – are so powerful and potent for me. Imparting emotion, sharing thoughts, revealing truth – the piano is as much a tool as my voice.

Sometimes, it is my voice.

My fingers speak. They are my ability to communicate like anything else, whether it be my waving hands or my torrential words – or my fingers shaping a C9 chord.

And all this happened because somehow, Mrs. Bark unlocked that method of disclosure in that tiny, smoke-fllled room on Elk Street. She wasn’t the last, but she was the first to open the door of this miracle of sonic language.

Mrs. Bark was a door holder for me, in a way that changed my life. 

And I am, daily, grateful.

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2 Comments

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  1. your picture is david, had to look twice
    \\

    Like

  2. I want to know her too! 🙂 so happy for your writings and love

    Like

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