Music in Michigan: Singing to Bear, or, Playing on a Paper Piano

by Sue Richard

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Born before WWII and today the last surviving member of her birth family, my mother is writing anecdotes to preserve the past. Here’s one about singing to bear and playing the piano in the UP and LP (the state’s Upper Peninsula and Lower Peninsula). She was a first grader, or thereabouts, when the music lessons commenced. — NS

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My musical career failed to blossom. It began by being taught by all my Upper-Peninsula family to sing to bear when walking through the woods. It continued rather dismally in the Lower Peninsula by my learning to play on a paper keyboard my piano teacher gave me. 

I’m wondering whether I might have succeeded if I could have heard the keys I hit. However, if you imagine it was difficult for me, consider the issues my widowed instructor faced in correcting my fingering.

Lest you think any of this is untrue, consider the time, the place, and the family involved. World War II had recently ended. The day the war was over, people drove to town from miles around. The impromptu parade mainly featured the honking of car horns. One family sacrificed a feather pillow, throwing handfuls of goose down out their car window; the storekeeper who had that morning painted the front of his shoe shop with chocolate brown oil paint took the feathers in stride. After the cleanup—this took some time—he hung photos of the mess for all to see. The town’s city fathers were progressive. We were proud of that. One of their most admired triumphs was the installation of a municipal tennis court. I would have loved to learn to play tennis but this too was doomed because the Council never got around to buying a net. This made playing rather difficult. As far as family goes, we grew up learning philosophy passed down by our Grandpa George: you cannot have everything.

Grandpa had been named after a hero of his time, General George Custer. As an adult, Grandpa became a hero in his own right one terrifying night in the UP. Imagine a father of eight children, making a subsistence living with only one intact hand, setting out at night in a handmade canoe to rescue an ice-fisherman. The old man was lost on an errant ice floe that had broken off from the main ice pack and floated away into the darkness. It was a freezing December evening. Time was fleeting. Grandpa asked that fires be lit all along the shore so that he and, hopefully the fisherman, could make their way back to safety. Grandpa found him. But how did he get him off the floe into the fragile wooden boat? How did he steer their way between sheets of ice that threatened to crush them at any moment? I guess I’ll never know. But I digress.

Grandpa is important to this story because he taught me the rules about singing to bear. You must know the when, the where, and the time for it. When one of my aunts and I met up with a hungry black bear on a narrow lane through the woods, I knew I must not make a sound, that I had to continue walking by him on our side of the path, and above all I couldn’t look at him or at his garbage. The big thing was not to be afraid. Bear can smell fear. 

On the other hand, there are times to sing, or even chat, to warn them an interloper is near. Unbeknownst to my mother, the person on the other side of the blueberry bushes that she was talking to was not a sister. Apparently, she and the bear both thought the wild berries were delicious. They parted company with pail and belly full only when they saw one another.

I was instructed to always sing my way up the hill through the trees to a cousin’s cabin. It was also vital to sing all the way through the forest to my first-grade classroom. It was a couple miles away from home so it was imperative to have stamina, powerful lungs, and a strong desire to live. Lyrics were unimportant. Bear don’t know about harmony or pitch or other technical details—and neither did I. You now understand the reason my vocal career never took off. On the other hand, I did leave the UP alive.

Down in the LP, we finally did get an old upright piano. And I enjoyed the sounds I could produce. I’m not entirely certain why my dear instructor retired. But when she did I did too. 

Sue Richard

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