Music teacher’s lessons go beyond notes

Published 12:05 am Saturday, April 5, 2008

NATCHEZ — Rovell Presley is small woman. But when she opens her mouth, a high, booming voice comes out.

“Hello girls,” she bellowed as two members of the Zion Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church’s Angel Choir walked into the practice room.

She immediately grabs both of the girls for a hug.

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As practice began, Presley led the girls through vocal exercises as her fingers bounced from key to key across the piano, keeping perfect time.

And Presley has had plenty of practice on the keys.

She is a lifelong member of the church and has been their organist for 56 years.

“This is what I love,” she said.

Presley took over as the church’s organist sometime around 1952 when her friend, the former organist, resigned after she was married.

“I’ve just been here ever since,” she said.

But while Presley has officially acted as organist since the early 1950s, she’s been actually been making music at Zion A.M.E. for much longer.

Presley said as a child she would play piano for Sunday school students.

And before Presley was playing piano for Sunday school she was trying to make music in the home she grew up in, in Natchez, almost since she was born.

At around 5 or 6, Presley’s mother noticed Presley had an affinity for music.

“I would hear a tune and I would try to play it with my thumbs,” she said.

Presley said some of her first memories of music came from the old piano in her family’s home.

So Presley took piano lessons.

Presley said she took piano lessons in Natchez from two local teachers.

“They are the ones who helped me learn how to play,” she said.

Presley credits her teachers, Eliza Coleman and the other whom she could only remember as Sister Estoker; with helping her lay a foundation for a musical future.

Presley still remembers the first song she ever learned to play, “Tiptoe Through the Window.”

But since then, Presley said she has mainly focused her musical stylings on hymns and classical numbers.

“It’s all a joy for me and I wouldn’t have it any other way,” she said.

Zion’s Pastor Birdon Mitchell said the church is lucky to have member like Presley.

“She is very, very important to our church family,” he said. “She has had a hand on many members over the years.”