Some of us are born with certain skills that no one can understand where they came from. How does someone, without training, perform without being taught?
Margaret MacMillan was an extremely gifted pianist.
Everyone who had ever heard her play were not only amazed at her ability to play the piano, but she was renowned for her ability to cover the entire spectrum of the musical genre.
Did Margaret fit the description of the word “Prodigy” or a gifted learner?
The dictionary describes a prodigy as a young person who shows a gifted ability : an extraordinary, marvelous, or unusual accomplishment, deed, or event b : a highly talented child or youth.
The facts speak for themselves.
Margaret grew up in a home without a piano. It was a sad home as both her mother and father died before she was 15 years old. She was left to clean and cook and care for the needs of her 4 brothers. An older sister, Mary, died at an early age. She had to learn everything without her mother’s guidance.
A well to do family nearby had a piano in their home. Their name was Clark. Mary, their daughter, and Margaret were friends.
Mrs. Clark heard Margaret play the piano and was impressed by her ability with the instrument. She arranged to have Margaret take some lessons with a piano teacher.
After some lessons the teacher arranged for Margaret to pay a visit to a Professor MacKinnon who was a classical musician of note.
He listened to Margaret play and commented “ Margaret you must play what you hear with your heart”.
“I don’t understand” she said. “Please play it for me so that I will HEAR what you mean”.
Professor MacKinnon played the piece through for her to hear.
As soon as Margaret heard him play the piece she played it back for him and he told her “that’s it, now you are playing with your heart”. Was Margaret a gifted learner or child prodigy?
At every opportunity Margaret played the organ in St. Patrick’s Church next door. Even though she would rather play the piano, she would play the organ anyway.
She Plays For an Audience.
Soon, she was invited to play the piano in a recital competition at the Lyceum Theater on George St. The family were struggling financially and she didn’t have the luxury of a fancy dress. She knew the others in the competition would be dolled up in their finest, but she wore her best and showed up to play. She won the competition and was on her way.
She soon was approached to play with Sydney’s leading orchestra owned by Mr. Emilio Pace. He was quite the musician and played his music on the radio for many years as well as playing for dances everywhere.
Emilio loved to entertain. He lived in an apartment above a store on Charlotte St. in downtown Sydney. The apartment had a large window that opened. Every day that the weather was fine he would sit by that open window and play his favorite mandolin or other instrument for an increasingly appreciative audience who would gather on the sidewalk below.
Margaret and Joe Tie The Knot
On Sept. 16th. 1930 the parishioners of Sacred Heart Church were honored to witness the marriage of Joseph Thomas MacMillan and Margaret Mildred MacGillivary. They were attended by their good friends, Remi LeBlanc and Bessie MacAdam. The happy couple left by automobile for a honeymoon at Margaree Forks, Inverness County.
They stayed for a few days in one of the cabins that were located across the road from the co-operative store. Oddly, in 1978, one of those cabins was purchased by Jim Watkins of Big Brook Road to be used as a workshop, and moved by truck to a site less than 200 feet from the home of Joe and Irma MacMillan in North East Margaree who had moved there from Beaver Cove in 1977.
The one thing that Margaret asked to have was a piano of her own. Her skills as a gifted learner were stirring deep within her brain.
Their marriage got off to a shaky start as the World Depression was well on the way. The happy couple settled in an apartment on Dolbin St. Joe worked as a jeweler for Brown’s Jewelry. Margaret worked at her job with Burchill Agencies until the birth of their first child Isabel on June 13th. 1931 caused her to retire. Michael was born July 22nd. 1933.
In July 1935 the depression was at it height. Money was scarce everywhere and not getting better. A good friend, Norman Matheson, drove a delivery truck for a wholesale food company called DeYoung’s Wholesale in Sydney. Norman told Joe of an empty store on Plummer Ave. in New Waterford that was available. It was owned by a Mr. Beaton who accepted a rent of $15.00 par month. Norman and Joe loaded Joe’s tools and bench onto the truck and made the move.
Joe found a small apartment in a building that was a former jail. The building sat across the street from the No. 12 Mine office of the Dominion Coal Company. Margaret and the 2 children moved in and there, on a day that the temperature blistered at over 90 degrees F Margaret delivered Joseph Junior to the world.
Shortly after, Marg and Joe rented the house on Baker St. where on Oct. 15th 1936 Raymond entered the world.
Margaret was still without her piano and directed all of her energy tending her growing family.
Business was now booming with the war in Europe driving the economy. Joe and Marg found a house on George St. that was owned by Angus R. MacDonald. He was a gifted carpenter and had built the house for himself, but soon accepted an offer to sell and the deal was made.
Borrowing money from the bank for a house was not easy in those days. It was simply not available. Joe and Marg did manage to arrange a small loan. With that money plus their own savings they came up $800.00 short.
After his uncle John passed away in 1936 Joe, Adam Boyd and Hector MacMillan purchased the old home in Beaver Cove from the family. Needing money to complete the purchase of the house on George St. Joe and Marg sold their share to Adam and Hector for $800.00 and completed the sale in the summer of 1940.
The New Piano Arrives at Last
Once they settled in their new digs the search for a suitable piano for Margaret began in earnest. She stipulated that she wanted to test any piano before it was purchased.
Possibly through their good friend Stewart Layton, a find Glace Bay jeweler, a piano was found. Margaret got her chance to try it out and pronounced it a perfect instrument with the best sound board she had ever heard.
Again the Question arises: Gifted Learner or Prodigy
Unfortunately we had no way of recording Marg at the piano during her prime. By the time we were able to do so age and arthritis had taken their toll. These recordings were taped on a little recorder then played back and recorded on a small video camera and then setup on youtube. Because there was no way to compress the files the original had to be cut into 3 videos.
These recordings were done when Marg and Joe visited the home of Ray and Beverly about a year or so before Marg passes away.
If she were alive today (she passed away in 1987) she would be embarrassed but we are very lucky that these videos exist and allow us to hear her playing together with Ray and Joe adding their skills.
As soon as it was set up at home that amazing musical repertoire that had been playing over and over again in her head and heart literally erupted from her new instrument for everyone to hear. A rendition of Moonlight Sonata by Ludwig van Beethoven would be followed by a rollicking Roll Out The Barrel or the piano would bounce while she happily played Take Me Out To The Ball Game.
She Loved To Play Happy Music
Note the word HAPPY. She never played sad music. She always said “there is enough sadness in this world” so everything she played was played in a happy mode. This deep down need to erase sadness from her life was possibly in effort to erase the sad memories from her past, when she lost her mother, father, sister and the premature deaths of her twin sisters while she was very young.
Indeed, happiness could have been the best word to describe not only Margaret’s music but her life in general.
Her music brightened the lives of everyone who heard it. She encouraged everyone to sing along with her while she was playing. In those days, pre- television, people visited with each other often. When Marg and Joe showed up for a visit the house would soon rock while her piano playing got everyone involved.
Marg loved to encourage others to play. She began to teach Mike the fundamentals of the notes and chords. He was reluctant to “let it all out” at the time and he didn’t follow it up. However, many years later, he would go back to the piano and create the most beautiful music possible. He learned to read music and became a very good teacher.
November 11, 1942 was a sad day for Marg. Her brother Charles had been wounded in action in Belgium. However, 3 days later a happy bundle of Joy entered the world in the guise of baby Teresa. With the addition of this adorable little girl the MacMillan family was complete. Fortunately Charles arrived home but he did suffer from shell shock for the remainder of his life.
A Small Trio
Marg never played in a group after her times with the Pace Orchestra. The nearest she came to anything organized was one time in around 1943 two men came to the home. One was Walter Chant and I don’t know the other man’s name. One was the manager of Eaton’s Department Store. Walter played a violin and the other gent set up a large Xylophone in the living room. The trio played very well but I believe that it was a one of a kind thing. Listening to Margaret play with these two gents there was no question that she was a gifted learner.
What a wonderful pleasure it was to live in a home filled with the magnificent music she produced almost on a daily basis. She sometimes would work on attempting to master a complicated classical piece. She would play passages until she got them right. Often, she would cease the practice almost in mid page and play a rousing medley of pop tunes.
If anyone showed an interest by attempting to pick away at a few notes she would be full of encouragement, prompting them to try this or that.
She Encouraged Everyone
Raymond was quite young when he showed an interest in the piano. Marg would help with teaching him the chords. He was not all that interested in learning to read music at that time and relied on his hearing to get him along. Those lessons were a Godsend to him later on as his music has enthralled everyone who had has the good fortune to hear him at his instrument.
He is one very gifted musician who has literally carried his music with him everywhere he has traveled. He has given countless hours of musical pleasure to the people of Trenton as well as the surrounding district.
Marg tried to get Isabel to play but even though she took piano lessons in school it didn’t work. However, Isabel developed a love for music and she spent many years singing with the Cape Breton Choral with that wonderful voice of hers.
I never had the patience to learn the piano, but the wonderful melodies Marg played ran over and over in my head. Over the years I whistled those airs as if I was sitting with her on the piano bench. She always encouraged me to do so.
At a very young age, Shauna MacDonald (Doolan) a cousin of ours, sat on the bench with Marg and listened intently to her playing. Shauna later explained that that was the defining moment when her love for music began, which developed into a phenomenal musical career as a teacher and a recitalist. She certainly was a gifted learner.
Unfortunately, we missed the opportunity to record Marg on the piano except for the piece heard elsewhere on this page. This was recorded when her career and life were coming to an end.
Those of us who are alive today might count themselves lucky, if we will take a few moments to bring to mind her talent with the piano, and let those musical renditions she mastered so well, play again in our memories of this very gifted, happy, lovable, enjoyable lady.