About the Lister-Sink Institute
The Lister-Sink Institute is an educational organization dedicated to promoting a healthful, well-coordinated keyboard technique to maximize musical artistry and help prevent potential injury at any point in the career.
About Barbara Lister-Sink
Part I: Childhood & Pre-Injury
I have never written about my childhood or my roots as a musician. I have been too busy being a musician all these years to take the time to write my history. But it is time to do so. After all, how we play is a sum total of who we are. That fact alone—that each of us is unique and has a unique message to give to our listeners– should assuage any fear of not being good enough. We should not be in competition as musicians so much as celebrate our individual, unique voices. And that uniqueness reflects our individual trajectories though life. Perhaps my own unusual trajectory will give others hope and confidence that they too can grow into a life of real joy and fulfillment as musicians.
I grew up in the 1950’s on my Granddaddy Fitzgerald’s small farm in the beautiful Piedmont of North Carolina. The three Zinck brothers, my father’s ancestors, had come over in 1753 with the Moravians from Germany and traveled down the Great Wagon Road to the Back Country wilderness. There they carved out farms in the gently rolling, fertile land with its deep red soil, rose-glowing dawns and ubiquitous sound of mourning doves, mockingbirds and cicadas.
The Fitzgeralds had journeyed down that same trail from Ireland shortly thereafter. My Grandfather Fitzgerald’s 150-acre farm, on which I was raised, was almost completely self-sustaining. We grew all of our food, our own animals for slaughter, and our own cotton and wheat for milling. We drank our own milk, ate our own honey and eggs, baked our own bread, and made our own soap, butter, and cottage cheese. Most of our clothing and all of our quilts were homemade. Some of them were sewn from cotton chicken feed sacks with pretty floral prints. We simply washed and ironed them when empty, cut them up and sewed them into dresses, aprons, bonnets and colorful quilts. (I sewed all of my concert dresses until I was in my late 20’s).
My grandparents’ wooden clapboard house was heated by a kitchen wood stove, fireplaces and, only in the 1960’s, an oil heater sitting in front of the fireplace in the bed-sitting room. While my two brothers and I lived with my parents in a brick house that my father built, an abundance of memories center around the old farmhouse and the land itself. I remember so many evenings listening only to the crackling of the fire, the tick of the clock, the sound of quiet voices, or the voice of the Lone Ranger on the radio. Summers were spent making mud pies, sweeping the dirt yard for the chickens to wander about, hanging out clothes, folding and ironing, helping with the wheat harvest out in the hot sun before people knew what sun block was, sitting in the shade on the front porch drinking ice tea (sweetened, of course) and visiting neighbors and kinfolk on Sunday afternoon. We worked very hard but we were blessed with good family, friends and neighbors, and natural, rural beauty in that context a half-century ago.
So how did growing up in such a context, on a small farm in the 1950’s in Piedmont North Carolina lay the foundation for what I do today internationally as a teacher and performer? There are several answers and they all point to an organic flow as natural as the cycle of tilling, planting, and harvesting our farm crops.
In spite of the lack of TV, iPods, multi-channel radios, or the Internet, music was everywhere. We always sang—at church, while cooking or ironing, with family around the pump organ or upright piano, or in grammar school in weekly assemblies. Old timey music rang out from the radio at noon when my grandfather came in from the fields.
A childhood memory that will also remain dear to me is my father coming home every week from the grocery store with a new LP from the “Great Classics Collection.” He himself loved that great orchestral music and he wanted me to be able to hear it. In the 50’s there were no FM radios or National Public Radio or any opportunities for me to hear symphonic music except on the television where we could hear the Chicago Symphony on Sunday afternoons. Daddy paid $1.00 for each record, an amount that he would then have had to work 2 hours of hard labor to afford. He rarely said much to me, but that gesture spoke worlds.
I did not randomly tumble out of the sky playing the piano. Both nature and nurture figured heavily in my musical background. My parents were enormously influential, both genetically and in their own day-to-day musical presence. My father, Bright Immanuel Sink, was a carpenter, car mechanic, jack-of-all-trades and a natural talent if ever there were one. Daddy played stride and ragtime by ear throughout my entire life until he died in 2006 at 97. I watched a large, barrel-chested man with enormous paws for hands move at the piano with the ease, economy and freedom of a Rubinstein. Completely self-taught, he had a huge talent which circumstances channeled into playing merely for his own and others’ enjoyment. Throughout his life I watched the joy on folks’ faces as he played—in little country churches, community centers, senior citizens’ gatherings, hospitals, living rooms–anywhere an old upright or a pricey grand piano dwelled.
My father was a mystery to me for much of my life. He was shy, quiet, prone to outbursts of temper and terrified of speaking in public until growing old inspired him to be outrageously funny, politically outspoken and more extroverted. But throughout all of those 59 years I was privileged to be around my dad, especially in the last 20 years of his life, I stood by our little Knabe console piano, sang at the top of my lungs as he played, and knew that I was in the presence of one of the most talented pianists I ever knew. I miss my Daddy in so many ways, but most of all, I miss his piano playing.
But it was my mother—Mama—who enabled me to take the genes inherited from both of them and develop whatever talent I was given to its full potential. She never ceased in her efforts to give me every opportunity available to a chubby little farm girl with music swelling from her every pore.
I played the piano before I could talk. One of my most vivid early memories is sitting on my mother’s lap at the piano as she taught young people in our dining room. I would sit quietly listening and then, when the student left, I would pick out the notes of the pieces. I loved watching the keys go up and down from my 4-year old vantage point.
It was also a time when women in a North Carolina rural community had but a few choices—teaching school, secretarial work, working in a mill, nursing, being a church organist (unpaid, of course), or staying on the farm to cook, clean, garden, can food, sew and help with all the farm chores, tending the animals, planting and harvesting crops. The church was usually the center of community activity, and of music making.
But my mother’s family was a bit off the beaten track when it came to educating its female children. Perhaps it was the influence of the Moravians nearby in Salem. They had believed since the 17th century that women and men were equally intelligent and equally deserving of a fine education. My great grandfather Fitzgerald had created a farm out of the backcountry jungle of lush trees and undergrowth in the early 19th century, near our own farm now. From his primitive, unpainted clapboard farmhouse, resting on four piles of stone, he had hired a teacher to live in the house and educate his brood of young Fitzgeralds, boys and girls. The boys went on to various colleges, including Duke University, to become Methodist ministers. The girls went to Salem College in nearby Winston-Salem, the first female academy for girls in the United States. There, 30 miles north up Route 52, they studied music. That fact was to be prophetic for me.
On my father’s side, the Sinks were also not to be outdone by the Fitzgeralds when it came to musical education. Everyone in the household sang or played some instrument, and gathering around the piano to sing is still a lingering tradition. As a child, my father was encouraged to take piano lessons, as were all of his nine siblings in that generation. During much of the 20th century every living room had an upright piano and every neighborhood had a beloved, or dreaded, piano teacher “up the street.” But Daddy was not one to be fenced in by methods or neatly packaged assignments. After only several months of lessons, he polished off Schumann’s “Happy Farmer” in the quintessential spring recital, and never darkened the door of a teaching studio again.
And so it was that my lovely, doe-eyed mother, herself a beautiful soprano and music graduate of Guilford College, and recognizing my talent and love for music, found the best teachers she could, first in Lexington, North Carolina, and later in Winston-Salem at the Preparatory School of Salem College. In the mid-20th century, Salem College, a small liberal arts women’s college, had the reputation of being an epicenter of culture in the Southeast. Its faculty throughout the 20th century had studied at some of America’s most outstanding universities and music conservatories, as well as in Europe. So I was able at 14, thanks to my mother’s diligence, to study at the very music school attended by my great aunts. My teachers were iconic– Margaret Meuller, a beloved teacher and organist both in the international organ and pedagogy worlds, and Dean Clemens Sandresky, a Buffalo-born graduate of Dartmouth and Harvard. Among the many legendary music instructors with whom he studied was Nadia Boulanger, under whose baton he performed Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto during his college years.
My Tuesday late afternoon lesson at Salem College with Dean Sandresky was an oasis of musical high culture and intellectual stimulation. It felt like coming home to myself as a musician. My Grandmother Fitzgerald always waited for me outside on the Salem Square in our old 1950 black Plymouth. Dean Sandresky never failed to tip his hat and speak with her at the close of our lessons. But how odd it is the memories that float to the surface over the years. One of my most comforting memories was of Mabel, a beautiful tan and white collie that rested underneath the grand piano. She lent a soothing energy to an otherwise challenging experience of playing for a man of such erudition and gravitas. But those lessons were my lifeline to a wider world that awaited me. It was a world that held promises and hopes as wide as the sky and as high as the large cumulus clouds that served as the backdrop for many hours of daydreaming.
Three distinct dreams continued to visit me regularly as a teenager. One was in dazzling Technicolor of intensely green, hilly meadows with hedgerows and gloriously beautiful wildflowers, not so unlike my own farm. The other was of my riding in a taxi over a large bridge toward a dazzling night skyline. These dreams were prescient. But before the green meadows of Europe and the night skyline of New York, I was to experience the pain, the maddening frustration and the hopelessness of injury. And injury caused by doing the thing I loved most doing—playing the piano.
To be continued….