SALT LAKE CITY — Her hands gnarled with arthritis but her eyes sparkling with a determination to play through the pain, Edith Reed settles in front of her baby grand piano and strikes into a melody as delicate as a sigh.
The piece is Chopin’s Opus 28, one of her favorites in the nearly nine decades she has found solace at a bench in front of 88 keys. “Yes, it hurts,” she says, “but I’ve learned a technique that helps rejuvenate my hands. I pretend that I’m using a staple gun when I’m playing.”
“Staple!” she exclaims, hitting a difficult chord. “Staple! Hang on! I staple the key down and it helps me to get complete control. That’s just one secret I’ve taught to my students.”
Now that her life is winding to a satisfactory coda, Edith, 94, feels it is more important than ever to share what she knows.
For more than 60 years, she has offered free lessons to any child in her neighborhood with a desire to learn the language of music and devote an hour a day to practice.
Currently, Edith, a piano graduate of Columbia University who also studied at Julliard, has 28 students, but if one were to count how many lives she has influenced, it would number well into the thousands.
“I consider this payback — I want to give back what I have been fortunate to learn,” she says, her deep blue-violet eyes shining. “Beethoven said it best: ‘I wish you music to help with the burdens of life and to help you release your happiness to others.’ That’s a philosophy I’ve always strived for.”
Happy to share a few memories of a musical life, Edith recently joined me for a Free Lunch in her elegant dining room (I brought chef salad, she baked a cranberry cake) in the two-story Victorian house she has nurtured since 1949.
Raised in Draper, she started playing the piano at age 5 and took on her first students when she was 15. As a college student, she charged 50 cents a lesson to help pay her tuition and keep a steady supply of sheet music, but as she grew older, she decided to pass along her knowledge for free.
“I don’t need much and I’ve had a good life,” says the petite virtuoso, who raised 10 children and taught in the early days on an old upright Steinway with a baby bouncing on her knee.
“All I ask of my students is that they practice diligently,” she says. “City children don’t have chores to do. They don’t have cows to milk or carrots to sow. So practicing the piano for an hour a day is a wonderful discipline. I always say, ‘Most of the world’s work is done by people who don’t feel like doing it, so get busy. You’re not so different.’ ”
Edith’s students learn the three B’s (Bach, Beethoven and Brahms) in a sunny room full of old family photos and a view of a flower garden that their teacher still lovingly weeds in spite of her aching hands.
“I teach them that I take care of the garden one plant at a time, just as I take care of the house one room at a time,” she says. “And that also applies to the piano. How do we learn? One stanza at a time. Like Ralph Waldo Emerson said, ‘That which you persist in doing becomes easy to do.’ ”
Edith Reed knows the day is approaching when strains of Mozart will no longer drift from her back windows, but she doesn’t dwell on the inevitable.
“One day at a time,” she says, turning the page to another opus. "As long as I’m able, you’ll find me at my piano. It’s my life’s passion."
One song at a time.