Perhaps once in a lifetime, a person might just encounter an unforgettable spirit whose influence extends far beyond one human lifespan. This is the story of my chance meeting with such a woman who gave her heart to music and pianos all her life. February being the month for passion, it seems like a good time to share the story of E. Marie Burdette.
Back in my early days of piano service work, I offered my limited skills to local friends, just trying to help out. Joyce was one of those friends. At one piano appointment, she invited me to play with her in an upcoming county-wide piano duet festival. I’d never heard of such an event, but the idea intrigued me. Through the teacher of her teenage step daughters, we signed up. The year was 1992. The piano teacher was E. Marie Burdette. The event itself was one in a long history of monster piano concerts in Cowley County, dating back to the 1930s, all of them organized or influenced by this tiny whirlwind of a musician and piano teacher.
That 1992 festival was held in the gymnasium at Cowley College, with about 25 home model acoustic pianos loaned by local families, churches, and music stores. They arced in rows around a director’s podium. The whole experience was a blast. For me, it was also a life-changer.
The idea of getting two dozen borrowed pianos together–and tuned!–in time for a weekend rehearsal and concert astounded me. I was hooked. And I wanted to be part of the next one. Sponsored in every leap year by local music clubs as well as the county’s Walnut Valley Music Teachers Association, I decided to support the groups, and to get my own children involved in the next piano duet experience. I joined the WVMTA. Later I located the Wichita PTG chapter and joined it also, in hopes of being part of the prep work on the 1996 monster concert. Sadly, never since 1992 were acoustic instruments involved, and never again on the gym floor. Instead, ten or twelve Clavinovas were provided for stage use in the Brown Center auditorium at Cowley College. A couple times, we added a few of the college’s acoustic pianos, and in 2020, we utilized the stage Steinway D piano, but the challenge of tuning up to 30 pianos did not present itself.
Those monster concerts were the idea of the amazing devotee of keyboard music and pedagogy, Miss E. Marie Burdette. In 1992, she observed her 91st birthday, and though not present at the festival itself, she sent her students in droves. It would be another five years before I actually met her, when she called on me for piano service. With a bit of trepidation, and a bit more awe, I answered her call to the modest brick home her parents built in 1942. I have taken care of her 1966 Mason and Hamlin A ever since.
Emma Marie Burdette, (E. Marie) whose name is nearly synonymous with “piano” in Winfield, was born July 3, 1901 in Cedar Vale, Ks. She was half of a set of twins, born moments after her brother Penrose. Her family moved to Winfield in 1909, where they settled. Her first piano lesson at age 8 was at Winfield’s College of Music, a school on Main Street that exists today only in the historical museum. From that first lesson, she knew she wanted to be a piano teacher. She excelled in the art of performance, and joined the College of Music faculty before graduating from Winfield High School in 1920.
After four years teaching at the College of Music, she spent a year in New York as the assistant to nationally recognized composer and teacher Mrs. Crosby Adams. At the end of her year, she returned to Winfield with continued employment at Southwestern College, where she taught until her retirement in 1970. During the summers of 1927 and 1930, she studied organ with Marcel Dupre and piano with renowned European masters in Paris, France. Her friendship with the Dupre family lasted a lifetime, and she brought them to Winfield for performance and speaking engagements at Southwestern College.
Miss Burdette belonged to all the music organizations in existence during her lifetime–piano, organ, and teaching groups. She served as an officer in most of them. Through her connections, she brought international talent to Kansas and Winfield. Some noted guests were Marcel Dupre, Mrs. Crosby Adams, and the widow of Edward McDowell. There is even a report that she brought Rachmaninoff as a performer to an early regional music conference held at Southwestern College.
But her biggest legacy involves the students she taught. She loved teaching, and she loved her students. There are many Winfield residents who remember her lessons and how much she cared. She never turned down a student, regardless of age. My friend Joyce, that 1992 duet partner, took lessons from Miss Burdette as an adult. “She never treated me like a child, but asked why I wanted to study piano. What were my goals? And then her focus was to help me reach those goals.”
She never pushed a student to do anything they didn’t want to do, but instead offered understanding and gentle encouragement. “You can do it. You have what it takes!”
Encouragement was a hallmark of her teaching method. “Even when her aging eyes fluttered closed, she knew when I made a mistake,” Joyce said. “Her eyes opened, and she offered a gentle reminder—’remember the fingering”, or she helped with the count ‘one-sy, two-sy’, was all she’d say.”
Jim, who started piano lessons with Miss Burdette as a Middle School student during the 1970s, still hears her voice as he plunges today into a Chopin Prelude he’s always wanted to play. “I have a heavy touch and she had this way—when I butchered a note, she touched my shoulder to demonstrate. ‘Not this touch,’ and then with another touch to my shoulder, ‘Like this.’” And he felt the technique in her touch.
Her students were her family, and her life. Single for every one of her 104 years, she worked tirelessly to teach, to pass on her love of music and pianos and organs. Her biggest efforts came about in those monster concerts.
She organized several at Southwestern College in the 1930s, and one in Wichita as well. The 1939 Winfield event featured 340 participants and 42 pianos, including 15 grand pianos. But the 1945 event surpassed them all.
With help from countless community members, Miss Burdette organized a monster concert with 100 pianos on the gymnasium floor at Southwestern College. It caught the attention of William F. McDermott who wrote an article for Recreation about the music life in Winfield, Kansas, leading off with the piano event. The article “Mad About Music” ran in the October 1945 edition of Recreation and was reprinted in a shorter version in the November 1945 Reader’s Digest.
From McDermott’s article: “It soon will be time for another ‘Piano raid’ at Winfield, Kansas. . .Sedate citizens, with sleeves rolled up, will help to ‘hustle’ pianos from homes, churches, and club rooms—but mostly from Cunningham’s, the town’s leading music store—to the huge gymnasium of Southwestern College. There the volunteer movers will set up ‘pianistic battalions,’ ready to renew one of the most unusual music festivals ever held anywhere.
“. . .While the town of 11,000 ran riot with bands, orchestras, and choruses, for years there was nothing to satisfy the ensemble desires of the piano players. A piano teacher, E. Marie Burdette, pioneered the idea of a mass piano festival.
“The piano shifting is on a huge scale. Here and there home-built ‘dollies’ are used to trundle two or three pianos of a neighborhood into one living room for a week or two. There a group of players practice every evening from supper until midnight. Next they assemble at the music store where up to fifteen pianos are used for a week’s rehearsal each by consolidated groups—and finally there’s the grand rush on the gym with 100 pianos.
“For two days and a night at the gym, relays of players, assembling in company formation, rehearse in groups of fifty, polishing off their ensemble performance. A battery of tuners goes over the instruments and puts them in harmony. Now the big night arrives.
“Through an arch come the performers—lawyers, bankers, debs in evening gowns, mothers in their Sunday best, bobby-soxers and college athletes, grocers and insurance men, barbers and preachers. They march with heads high and eyes gleaming. . . At a signal the players seat themselves, two to a piano. The director lifts his baton, and 400 hands begin rolling over the keys.
“The music pours out like a mighty wave, filling the vast room to the rafters. The crescendo passes, and the roar of 100 pianos played in unison diminishes to a note so soft that it seems impossible so many instruments are in action. The crowd holds its breath as the nuances make richer the melody of the piece. Here is more than unity of performance; it is a unity of spirit born out of love for music.”
There was nothing E. Marie wouldn’t do for the love of her students, to share the music. Jim still hears her words of instruction and encouragement, her voice echoing in his mind as he practices. “I think she’d be smiling to know that she’s still teaching,” he said. “That has to be the greatest legacy of any teacher.”
A few years ago, Jim chose a Mason/Hamlin grand piano for his own, remembering Miss Burdette’s teaching instrument. Interestingly, her own 1966 model continues to inspire musicians in a generation she never met. In 2000, at age 99, E. Marie Burdette was recognized by the Kansas governor as the oldest working woman in the state. Soon after that, she did retire for good, after teaching four generations how to play the piano. Her Mason/Hamlin was donated to the Winfield public schools and I continued to care for it there. In early 2016, ten years after she died at age 104, a young man who had never had a single lesson, whose parents frowned on his interest in music, fell in love with Miss Burdette’s piano in the Winfield Middle School vocal room. School music staff helped foster Emerson’s interest, gave him lessons, encouraged him along. As a senior at Winfield High School, after only four years of sporadic piano study, he participated in the most recent piano duet festival at Cowley College. That fall he enrolled in the music program there.
When most of the music faculty in the Winfield school system retired following the COVID shut down, Emerson convinced the new music teachers (who were more into electronic instruments) that, rather than let the little mahogany grand piano just sit, unwanted and unused, they should give it to him. And they did. I have twice called at his little house to tune the Burdette Mason/Hamlin. While I’m there, we also talk music, pianos, pedagogy, and technology.
Nearing the end of his course of study in music at Cowley College, Emerson plans to continue piano study at Wichita State University, and possibly learn piano service work as well. Though he never met E. Marie Burdette, her piano changed his life and she would be smiling to know that also.
Through her passion for pianos, her gift to the world continues. This post is dedicated to her love affair with music that extends beyond the grave. May she rest in peace, secure in the knowledge that her music and her teaching will continue to impact lives for many years to come.