GRAY -- When Mary Etta Heath was 7 years old, her grandfather encouraged her to learn to play the piano.
Andrew J. Caldwell was a Baptist minister, and he was always looking for someone to tickle the ivory as he made his rounds as a circuit preacher.
A neighbor sold the family a piano for $5 and rolled it down the dirt street in east Macon, where it was carried up the porch steps to the living room.
The moment Mary Etta’s fingers touched the keys, and her tiny legs stretched for the pedals, her life changed forever.
So would the lives of the thousands of others she would play for at churches, recitals, weddings and funerals.
So would the thousands of students she would teach over 57 years. Many went to college on music scholarships and became piano teachers, chorus directors, church pianists and prominent members of the arts community.
Some musicians live for the spotlight, the bravo, cheers and applause. They covet the recognition, the awards to hang on the wall and display on the mantel.
Others, like Mary Etta Heath, have simply spent their noble days putting songs in the hearts of those who would go on to put songs in the hearts of others.
She is now 78 years old and proud of it. She retired from teaching in 2007 when her husband, Bill, got sick. After he died in 2009, the grief consumed her, and the piano bench became a cold and lonely place. Then a friend, Bennie Goolsby, encouraged her to make music again.
On a recent January afternoon, she sat at a grand piano and played “The World Outside,’’ the theme from “The Warsaw Concerto” by Carl Sigman.
The world outside belongs to me. Since you are mine I rule the night. I own the moon. I tell the stars when to shine. ... The world outside will never know how much you mean to my heart.
She took her first lessons from Mrs. W.W. Solomon, who lived on Arlington Place in Macon.
“There weren’t a lot of other children in my neighborhood, so I read books and played the piano,’’ she said.
When she was 9 years old, she went with her granddaddy to Mount Pleasant Baptist Church. They arrived early so he could build a fire in the wood heater.
A nice crowd arrived for the service, but not one of them could play the piano. Mary Etta was recruited to climb up on the seat and play “Behold, A Stranger at the Door.”
The hymn had five flats, and Mary Etta was only able to handle the notes for two of them. But it was OK, because everyone just sang extra loud. And, when it was over, her grandfather leaned over and said: “Great job, baby.”
She later rode with him to Dublin for a revival. After he preached, and she played the piano, the congregation passed the hat and collected a love offering.
“It was the first time I was paid to play,” she said. “We were riding home in my grandfather’s Model T, and my money blew out the car window, and he had to stop and get it for me.”
When she was 14, a neighbor asked Mary Etta if she would give piano lessons to her 8-year-old daughter. She received 50 cents for 30 minutes.
As a teenager, she became involved with musicians who performed in homes. Among them was a gospel singer named Ronnie Thompson, who would later became one of Macon’s most colorful mayors.
Mary Etta also played for gospel groups on WBML radio at 6 every morning. She would have to arrive at the station early. “A man’s (singing) voice is deeper in the morning than it is during the daytime, so I would always have to transpose the songs (into a different key),” she said.
She didn’t get paid, but the experience was invaluable. She later studied under some of the finest music teachers at Mercer and Wesleyan Conservatory.
After she and Bill married, she began giving piano lessons at their homes in the east Macon and Shurlington neighborhoods. There were times when she would have children arriving as early as 7 a.m. She would then leave to teach students at Cross Keys Methodist Church during the day and return home to give lessons until 9 or 10 at night.
She would sometimes teach as many as 150 students a week. Her recitals often had to be spread over four nights. She also gave lessons for 31 years in Jones County, where they moved in 1976.
“She taught many hours with my brother, sister or me sitting on her knee, and later her grandchildren,’’ said her son, Paul Heath. Those three children -- Steve, Paul and Angela -- all inherited their mother’s gift of music.
Mary Etta and Bill were music directors at several churches, including East Macon Methodist, Second Street Methodist and Shurlington Methodist. They also opened music stores in Macon and Milledgeville, where they sold pianos and organs.
Mary Etta played at wedding and funerals, entertained patients at Central State Hospital in Milledgeville and residents at the Veterans Administration in Dublin.
“Every time we go out, Mom runs into someone she taught,” said Paul. “It is not unusual for her to see people she taught back in east Macon. They are always so appreciative. She not only taught them to play the piano, she was interested in their lives and what they were doing.”
Reach Gris at 744-4275 or firstname.lastname@example.org.