Couple gives kids gift of music and asks for nothing in return
by Jennifer Torres, Recordnet.com
When, after more than a few tries, Ariel Jackson couldn’t get through her saxophone solo without a squeak, 88-year-old Harry Owens walked up to the girl where she stood behind her music stand and whispered instructions.
Ariel nodded and walked away to wet her instrument’s reed under a faucet before trying again later.
“Part of it might have been her reed,” said Harry a few days after the recital, held in mid-November in a downtown church community room. “I could tell her reed was too stiff.”
“And, too,” his wife, 82-year-old Clemmie Owens, said, “they get nervous sometimes.”
She had taught the piano students who performed that Sunday afternoon, while her husband tutored those playing band instruments.
“Might have been,” he said.
Harry and Clemmie grew up in Depression-era Oklahoma, a time and a place where formal music instruction was unlikely for poor, black children.
Nevertheless, they learned.
And for the past 40 years, they have been teaching – maintaining through their free music lessons what they see as a tradition of sharing what you have with your neighbors.
“That’s part of my childhood, because I was a kid when times were really tough, and people just did things because they liked you,” Clemmie said. “And I appreciated that very much.”
Clemmie was born in Hugo, the Choctaw County seat, located in the southeastern portion of Oklahoma. She and her sisters got piano lessons for a quarter a session from a woman to whom her aunt rented an apartment.
“I studied piano under this lady, her name was Miss Freddie, for four or five years,” Clemmie said.
Then a man who had graduated from Virginia’s Hampton University, a historically black campus, moved to the small town. “He agreed to give piano lessons to students without charging anything.”
Harry grew up about 150 miles north, in Sapulpa, Okla., where this year, on the day after the Nov. 4 election, the Sapulpa Daily Herald noted that John McCain had won Creek County, but not that Barack Obama had won the presidency.
Harry learned to play trumpet from an electrician who came from Tuskegee, Ala., and wished he could play in a band.
“Growing up in Sapulpa, Okla., the white school, they had all kind of marching band things,” Harry said. “I guess our principal knew better than to try and get something like that for us.”
His high school, he said, finally got a marching band program in 1951. He had graduated in 1938.
He and Clemmie met in the music department at Oklahoma’s Langston University, the western-most historically black college in the United States. In the 1960s, they moved to California’s Central Valley to teach, eventually getting jobs with Stockton Unified School District. Harry was principal at Edison for two years in the mid-1970s before returning to the classroom. At the same time, Clemmie, after more than decade of teaching, became director of Stockton Unified’s black dialect program, one of only three at the time in California.
Harry started giving music lessons to a small group of boys after leaving the principal’s office.
“I was thinking that they were going to get into trouble somewhere, and if we could get enough music together … well, then these boys could play and become part of society,” he said. “It was a pretty good deal, I thought.”
Harry kept up the lessons after his retirement, and, after hers, Clemmie began teaching piano.
Three days a week, children from their neighborhood and church come to their north Stockton living room to practice. The lessons are free.
Every fall, the students give a holiday recital.
“These are the beautiful people who give of their time – do not charge; give of their time – to the children,” Patricia Hatton said as she introduced Harry and Clemmie Owens at this year’s performance. “You’re going to see a part of all their work.”
Keala Wheaton, 9, played three songs: “The Snake Dance,” “Riding on a Mule” and “Brahms’ Lullaby.”
“She has dedicated her life to teaching people to play the piano,” Keala said of Clemmie, her teacher. “Music is something that helps me. It helps me get away from everything.”
Christina Imeri has taken clarinet lessons from Harry for four years. At the recital, she played “Amazing Grace” and “My Heart Will Go On.”
“They’re really great people,” Christina, 13, said. “They’re very generous.”
At the end of the recital, Clemmie and Harry Owens stood up, held hands and thanked the parents who had come.
“I think that the children have done so well because their parents have been equally involved in their learning how to play the various instruments,” Clemmie said. “I think that parents who have done so well should be known and should be recognized.”