Lillian Sudduth’s eyes can no longer read sheet music, but her heart still knows the notes, and as she sits down to play, the melodies come easily as her hands gracefully flutter over the keys.
At 96, Mrs. Sudduth has a touch of arthritis, but the stiffness and pain quickly dissipate as hymns and gospel tunes carry through the atrium of her home at Atria Willow Park.
“I enjoy it,” she said. “It’s the bright spot in my day, and I play every day if I’m here.”
Mrs. Sudduth, a minister’s wife and mother, has been playing for more than 90 years, and although her vision is fading, she plays the tunes from memory.
“I didn’t realize I was memorizing them, and every once in a while I’ll think of one that I haven’t played before, and I play it. I try not to play the same song too often, but I play what comes into my mind.”
Her musical ear is God-given, and she can easily pick up notes and tunes, though she did take 11 formal lessons in her 20s.
“Most (songs) are written with A, B, C, D, E and my way of playing was Do, Ra, Me, Fa, So, La, Te, Do — and so it gave me such a headache that I quit after 11 lessons,” she said.
At 5, she began playing nursery rhymes on an old cottage organ no one in the home knew how to play. No one in the family played any instruments, but her father was active in the church choir.
At 8, the church pianist was asked to play a tune she did not know, and Mrs. Sudduth’s father asked her to play it.
“He said, ‘Lillian can play that if you can sing it,’” she recalled.
The piano was different than the organ at home, but the tune came naturally.
“I sat on that piano, and I couldn’t reach the pedals,” she said. “I thought you had to press the pedals to play it, and then I thought if I scoot way up on the stool maybe I could reach the pedals. I did, and I played that song.”
At 11, her father taught her the shape of the notes, and she has been playing ever since.
She kept her skills sharp through the years, playing periodically in church and learning patriotic songs, marches and country music. Although she cannot read traditional sheet music, once she learned a song, it was safely stored in her memory banks.
“She brings joy to the residents, and I find myself walking around and singing the hymns she is playing,” said Susan Dodd, enrich life director for Atria Willow Park. “I’m constantly amazed she has all of these songs memorized in her head.”
Mrs. Sudduth said the piano is another way for her to worship and be closer to God.
“It’s a gift of the Lord, and I’m going to use it as long as I can…” she said. “The Lord has been so good to me through all of this, and I credit to him with my abilities to play.”