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In the summer of 1995, I had no idea the path my life would take once Carole Ann Kriewaldt entered my life.
It’s amazing the small details you remember in pivotal moments of your life. My mom informed me that we would be meeting with a woman to see if she might accept me as a piano student. My mom made it very clear that this was not a lesson—it was a trial, an interview, nothing had been decided yet. Five-year-old me heard this and thought, “challenge accepted!” I wanted to do whatever it would take to be able to start piano lessons.
Before going to Broken Reed Court, my soon-to-be second home, I asked my mom if I could wear my favorite summer dress. It was a white linen dress that had big strawberries all over it. I thought it was the prettiest dress ever made, and I only wore it for special occasions. My mom obliged, so I quickly changed and got in the car.
When my parents knocked on the door to this brown townhouse, the door opened and this towering woman stood there. She invited us in; the house smelled like French-vanilla candles. My parents sat down and I remember knowing I should have sat down right next to them—but I didn’t. I went straight for the piano bench. It’s amazing to think how small I must have been because I struggled to get on top of the bench—but I was determined. When my parents saw this struggle, my dad called my name. Before I could get off the bench to go sit next to him, I was lifted up by this woman. She took me into her arms, looked straight at me and said, “Well, aren’t you the prettiest strawberry shortcake I have ever seen!” (She was on my side.)
She positioned me on the bench and sat down right next to me. She said that she was going to show me where middle C was on the piano. Before she could stretch out her hand to do so, I put my thumb on middle C. And then with some makeshift fingering I said, “CDEFGABC, and then it keeps repeating.” She said, “OH!!!! We have a smart one here, don’t we, Strawberry Shortcake?”
I laughed so hard and questioned momentarily if she knew my name wasn’t Strawberry Shortcake. It was a laugh that I would continue to experience only with her. I looked at my parents and they approved with laughter. At that moment, I didn’t realize that those three people were always, always going to be on my side. They were there making sure I worked to my best ability, moving mountains on my behalf until I realized that I could move them on my own.
It’s hard to capture a twenty-five-year relationship. The moments I think about most have nothing to do with music, but it all started there.
Mrs. Carole was home. She had an open-door policy (literally), and she was a person I knew would always be awake in the middle of the night for a phone call (she never slept)! Our relationship became one that held every dream, secret, desire, problem, fear, or ambition of mine. She knew it all. Before any recital, performance, or competition she would say, “Go knock em’ dead, kid” in her big southern, Texas accent. She nurtured what it meant to be “Leah” and made me believe that the world needed to hear from me.
I vividly remember one holiday when we went shopping for red boots for her granddaughter. We went all over town looking for these boots and I was just so happy to be spending the day with her. In one store a sales associate asked her, “Now, who is this little one in relation to you?” Mrs. Carole said, “That’s my grand baby!” The sales associate was shocked by her response, and it never occurred to me why. But now, I imagine that in our little town, a German woman born in Texas, saying a little Black girl was her granddaughter might have been shocking to some. I reflect on this a lot because it is a constant reminder to me how music has a profound way of building deep relationships, and how music cuts through social barriers with shared culture and life experiences.
The greatest lesson I learned from Mrs. Carole is the lesson I try to give to each of my students every week. She taught me that every student’s voice is unique and there is something incredibly special about them that the world needs to hear. We have the privilege as educators to tap into that voice, through music, and prepare them to step out on any “stage” with the confidence of knowing that the world needs to hear from them.