By Ashley Perham
Photos By Caryn Tramel
MTSU/Seigenthaler News Service
The first sounds from the organ at New Providence Presbyterian Church in Maryville, Tennessee, last Sunday were not a prelude, hymn, or doxology; but rather a chorus of “Happy Birthday to You,” sung to a 104-year-old member of the church. Yet even in this spontaneous service opening, the swell of the organ still performed unified the congregants in joyful song. And the one person behind this joyful unification, Miss Peggy Rogers.
Miss Rogers, dressed in bright blue and green this particular Sunday morning, has been the New Providence organist since she tried out for the position in 1974. Her preludes, offertories, and postludes swell out of the monstrous Casavant organ pipes hidden in the right side of the chancel. The organ was put in the church in 1955, and its dedicatory recital was played by Claudia Carter, Miss Rogers’ own organ teacher.
“My high school organ teacher was the organist here, and so I just thought she was something else,” Miss Rogers said. “She let me do my high school organ recital in this church, and I thought I had died and gone to heaven; it was so bigtime to me, and I couldn't imagine ever being here and being the organist.”
Along with playing for the traditional service and the choir, Miss Rogers also has directed the handbell choir for 40 years. They perform around four times a year, she said.
Miss Rogers used to be an organist at First Baptist Church of Maryville but wanted to play more classical and traditional choral music. She is now “totally happy” as a paid staff member at New Providence.
“I'd be home in my rocking chair if I didn't get paid something,” she said, shocked at the assumption that a church musician might not be paid.
Miss Rogers’ duties as organist include having a prelude, offertory, and postlude for every Sunday of the year.
“I’ve got a repertoire you wouldn’t believe of organ music,” she said, after spending fifteen minutes after the service going over her pieces with the choir director
However, while the practicing and playing of this much music a year appears daunting, Miss Rogers does not seem to worry about what could go wrong, instead focusing on her enjoyment of the music.
“It just all goes together, and it's wonderful,” she said with a smile on her face and a happy sigh.
Everything about music seems to be enjoyable for Miss Rogers, so much so that she has spent 56 years spreading this enjoyment to others through her piano lessons.
She started teaching in 1963, right after her graduation from Maryville College where she majored in organ performance and minored in piano.
She had been playing piano since the second grade and organ since her sophomore year in high school, but it was not until a conversation with Carter that she knew music was what she wanted to do for the rest of her life.
“I talked to Claudia Carter, and she asked me, ‘What do you love any more than music?’ and I said, ‘I like English, but I don’t want to be an English teacher,’ so she says, ‘Major in organ,’ so I did.”
Miss Rogers started teaching on an old piano in the library at Springbrook Elementary in Alcoa, where she grew up. She also taught at Alcoa Elementary for a while.
Miss Rogers said her favorite part of teaching was getting along with her “kids” and seeing what they can accomplish.
“They grow up so quickly,” she said.
She starts lessons in second grade and will teach up until her students leave for college.
“I want them to enjoy piano the rest of their lives, and I like to hear the fact that they may be playing at their church, and that pleases me,” she said.
She mentioned that one of her outstanding students, Robby Clemens, a senior at Maryville College, is a pianist at Middlesettlements Methodist Church.
Clemens said he took lessons with Miss Rogers from when he was seven until he went off to college at age 18.
“She taught me to love the music. She's my first piano teacher ever so … if I hadn't like her I might have associated those bad feelings with music, but since she showed me what loving music is like and the magic in music, … it really set me on a love for music and piano,” Clemens explained. “She's provided the perfect foundation for growing into the musician that I am today.
Miss Rogers’ love for her students and earnest desire for them to enjoy music is evident, even down to her treble clef earrings that her student “little Ethan” gave her.
“If it’s his day for piano, I wear them,” she explained.
She has taught children of former students and may have a grandchild of a former student.
“That’s kind of rare at this point,” she said. “I don't have a whole lot of grandkids yet.”
While Miss Rogers’ “practice, practice, practice” advice to her students is the mantra of piano teachers everywhere, she has a unique outlook on how her students should use piano after they leave her lessons.
“I always tease them and tell them get a good day job so you can buy a grand piano,” she said. “I don't push them to major in music unless they cannot live without practicing day in, day out. There's no reason to unless you really can't live without it.”
While Miss Rogers used to teach 40 students, she only has around eight right now.
“It has not been as popular in the last few years, just because people are so busy with other things, you know the soccer and the basketball and all that, fun things they do,” she explained, with no apparent ill will toward the activities taking students away.
“I heard on the national news three or four years ago that the piano is coming back, and I thought, ‘Where'd it go? My piano didn't go,’ but … people want to have a talent to play so I'm glad it's coming back,” she stated. “I don't think it's ever gone anywhere.”
While she also does not have any organ students right now (she usually teaches that to adults), she is still confident that it is alive and well.
“Organ is not dead. I'm telling you that for sure,” she said. “I go to organ conferences and fabulous music programs. It's not all contemporary. It's traditional so that's what I enjoy doing, going to the conferences and hearing big time organists.”
Miss Rogers said that she also loves accompanying.
“It's just fun, just fun,” she said. “It's not easy. You have to learn how to play four parts at once, which is really hard, but the more you practice on it, the more it becomes easy.”
Along with accompanying the choir at New Providence, she also has accompanied the William Blount Singers at William Blount High School in Maryville and the Maryville College Community Chorus.
Although she has been playing for so long, Miss Rogers said she still gets stage fright.
“It's a weird kind of stage fright that I cannot believe I'm there,” she explained. “You start and you just kind of play and you don't know you're there. Isn't that weird? I zone out.”
Miss Rogers seems to have no plans to give up accompanying and teaching anytime soon. She would not give her age, but said, “Just say I’m older than dirt.”
While she does not have arthritis or any condition that affects her hands, she only has vision in one eye. To combat this challenge, her choir director has moved his stand from the right side to the left side so she could see out of her good eye.
“I just want to be able to keep doing it as long as I am physically and mentally able to do it,” she said.
It is easy to see how Miss Rogers’ infectious love for music rubs off on her students. When asked about her favorite piece, “Finlandia,” she began to play as naturally as if she were just taking another breath.
“I've asked Robby to play that at my service if I ever die,” she chuckled.
Finlandia by Jean Sibelius is the tune to the hymn, “Be Still My Soul,” which is what Miss Rogers’ soul seems to do when she plays. The peace she gets from playing will continue to influence the worship at New Providence for years to come, whether she is playing “Happy Birthday to You” or the Gloria Patri.