Notes of a lifetime

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Wilma Wilson, head of Wilson School of Music.

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Framed within music, student, instrument and home, Wilma Wilson strums her acoustic guitar and chats with banjo player Dr. Jake Kaminsky.

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Following a banjo lesson, Dr. Jake Kaminsky and Wilma Wilson share a moment of conversation and a goodbye.

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Dr. Jake Kaminsky, a seasoned musician, arrives with banjo in hand for a lesson at Wilson's home.

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A doctor by day, Walla Walla obstetrician Jake Kaminsky is treated no differently in Wilma Wilson's living room than any other student.

"It's not perfect," he says with a grin, cradling his prized banjo in his lap after playing "Folk Dance" in lesson No. 6.

"But Wilma is very forgiving."

Wilson, head of Wilson School of Music, has been forgiving her students for 74 years, since she began teaching guitar at age 13.

She herself began playing steel guitar at 11 years old, but the musical score of her life began much earlier, she recalled.

"I was 4 years old when we moved into a house with a record player, an Edison, and with records. And my older sister discovered I could sing," Wilson said with a smile. "On key."

The youngster was a natural in a genetic pool of musicians. Her parents played for community dances in and around Astoria, Ore., at the time.

"We played the Grange and we really got rich," she said, her easy laugh spilling out at the little joke. "We'd get half of what they took in at the door and we split it up. Mom and I usually got 75 cents, which paid for the shampoo and set for the next time."

Her music room - half of a living room that was moved into position on her 1930-era home and "glued on" from another house, Wilson explained - bears testimony to such an era. Here is the 1888 Kanobbe piano that was bought for her own mother in 1909, when Louise Langfelt was 9 years old.

The instrument is snugged into a space crowded by two organs, a Thomas and a Baldwin, along with an accordion and acoustic guitar. "The kind we used to call a Spanish guitar," Wilson said, always the teacher.

She graduated from the University of Oregon in 1944 as a music major and married the love of her life, Howard Wilson. The family moved into the Pomona Street house in 1969.

When their four children were old enough to play an instrument, they had a built-in band, with kids on clarinet, flute, drums, sousaphone and coronet. "Then I'd play the guitar or sometimes the accordion," Wilma Wilson said. "Howard played harmonica. Which I never managed to conquer."

It's a short list, however, of what she can't play. On her business card, the teacher lists accordion, organ steel guitar, piano, guitar - classic and bass - banjo, keyboard, ukulele, mandolin and autoharp.

At one time Wilson oversaw 40 students and had a waiting list. Now the weeks are slower, with a mere 17 or so half-hour lessons a week.

Kaminsky, a seasoned musician but new to banjo, counts himself lucky to be among her students.

"The lessons are one thing, but I just enjoy being around her and just learning about different experiences that she's had," he said. "It's about learning more than just music. She talks about going through rough times and how music kept them going."

Wilson, he added, has a non-intimidating style tailored for the young musician. "It's very comfortable."

Kaminsky plays "Country Vamp" for his teacher. Wilson strums along, and rewards her student in the end with a sunny smile. "Not bad," she tells him.

Even she can still stumble, she assures Kaminsky. "If you just play the next note when it's due, most people will never hear the mistake."

Between lessons and her family, the house has always been filled with music, Wilson said. And that suits her mighty fine.

"I'm going to do this as long as I can. As long as my fingers and eyes will let me … I've had a lot of fun with this. That's why I teach, - because I want to."

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