“My ten fingers work as well as any man’s”

Email of the day:

As a young girl, I dreamed of becoming a southern gospel pianist from the very first time I heard Rosa Nell Speer Powell tear up a song or two. When I was a very brash 13, I remember telling Shannon Childress at a Hoppers concert that he was fantastic but that I definitely wanted his job. I attend Stamps-Baxter School of Music for five years studying with Eloise Phillips and my original idol, Rosa Nell, to learn all of the hot licks in the so-called “hard driving style” that women allegedly can’t play. Hogswallop, I say! My ten fingers work as well as any man’s.

I did audition for a couple of groups. One was an all-male quartet and bluntly told me they couldn’t have a woman who wasn’t a wife or daughter traveling on a bus with them. This was around the time of the hire of Amy Lambert with the Greenes, so I found this quite ludicrous, but I supposed pianists were much easier than sopranos to find in the other gender. Another “family” mixed group explained that I had a wonderful talent and would fit well with their style but that a man would better suit them because he could help load and unload their equipment and assist with driving their bus.

That just about quashed my dream. In recent years I’ve chosen to just observe from the sidelines and comment occasionally. I do actually study with Shannon Childress now on a weekly basis, so even though I didn’t steal his job (by hook or by marriage like my fellow Stamps-Baxter alum), I do get to learn all of his great secret piano moves now.

I can only hope that those little girls who sit out there in audiences at concerts and who dream of accompanying the greats of the field get the chance that I was denied. Maybe one day groups will realize that women are just as talented as men and can give the same great show as any male pianist and that they don’t have to marry into their position or have their daddies to start groups just so they can have a spot in this field.

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  1. Trent wrote:


  2. Susan Johnson wrote:

    you go girl!!! it’s a shame you never had the opportunity to play for a group. James Hales should listen to you once. I’ll give him a spoon with which to eat his words after hearing you play.

  3. DM wrote:

    The Greene’s mother traveled with them.

  4. James Hales wrote:

    If you read my post, which you obviously merely glanced over…you would have read that a female piano player told me that. As I talked with her about it, I tended to agree. There are exceptions to the rule, of course…sorry you took offense to something that someone of your own gender said. Who, by the way, is an excellent piano player in her own right.

  5. CVH wrote:

    I remember seeing the Speers in the mid 70’s when Diane would move to the piano and play a couple of their more MOR tunes. Her touch and feel matched the songs better than Ben’s would have and it was nice to see her up there. But she wouldn’t have been ‘right’ for the entire show, just as Ben wasn’t at that point either.

    If we lived in a world where equality reigned, many of life’s problems would be solved. But it’s possible even more would be created.

    Just on its own merit, sure I think women should have every opportunity to play in any group. In the case of a male quartet, I don’t know about the logistics or perceived propriety if she wasn’t attached by family or marriage to one of the guys, but let’s say everything’s on the up and up. OK, go for it.

    Realistically though, there are subtle and not-so-subtle barriers to women when it comes to any male-dominated industry. Sure, a few pioneers get in and create a wedge and may do well; but they don’t usually end up opening the door for many of their gender to follow through.

    If I were a skilled female gospel pianist, I’d probably be upset at the way things are. I’d probably look at whatever options were available like playing for a mixed group. Settling for less than your ultimate goal isn’t always satisfying but sometimes it’s the best that can be done, at least at the time.

    Here’s another thought and a question. If most professional groups are privately owned businesses, do equal employment laws apply to them? If so, I could see all kinds of litigation going on, that is if someone really wanted to make a point. Still, I’d be willing to bet that if two pianists, one male and one female, auditioned for a male group that was blindfolded and they preferred the female’s playing, then took off the blindfolds, they’d still hire the guy just because…well, he’s a guy.

    Hard to buck decades of tradition especially if it’s somewhat sexist in nature.

  6. pseudorachel wrote:

    Actually, Mr. Hales, I don’t think I specifically said that YOU were making the comment about the style. I did understand that someone else had told you that and I was merely stating that in my opinion it wasn’t an accurate portrayal. You haven’t offended me, she hasn’t offended me, I merely mark it up to what most people think anyway - male and female. Having attended a number of singing conventions where there were mainly women pianists playing, I can tell you with confidence that women are doing quite well at playing any style required of them. And I am actually quite grateful to you anyway because your interview with Shannon Childress was what allowed me to discover that he was teaching and to become his pupil.

  7. James Hales wrote:

    My comment was actually geared towards Susan Johnson, since she actually addressed her comments towards me. I know many women who can outplay any man…so I was not trying to come across sexist at all, which I felt SJ was implying. I was merely expressing the thoughts of someone else, and for the most part agreed with her thoughts after she expounded on it. And like I said, there definitely are exceptions…and I have no doubt about your abilities either. Have no reason to anyway, at this point.

  8. James Hales wrote:

    By the way, pseudorachel…I’m thrilled that my interview with Shannon helped you locate him and he become your teacher. I think that’s awesome!

  9. Anonymous wrote:

    Just because you are bitter because you didn’t get a job with a pro group doesn’t mean you should bash everybody in Southern Gospel music. I’m reminded of the verse in the Bible, Ephesians 4:29 “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”

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