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LeNell Griffin is the kind of person who keeps a promise—especially when it comes to playing piano and a love of music. She recalls how an epiphany struck in junior high school as she watched a pianist perform.
“A woman came to play for our school operetta,” recalled Griffin, who lives in Rupert in southeastern Idaho. “More than anything, I wanted to learn to play piano and to do it all my life. I promised my Heavenly Father that if my parents bought me a piano, I would teach others. And I’ve kept that promise for 69 years.”
Griffin, 87, has taught students ranging from age 6 to adulthood. She’s even taught some retirees. “I’ve had all kinds and taught them all to have a lifelong love of piano and music.”
In Minidoka and Cassia counties, she has become known as a beloved musical matriarch, the pianist to call to perform at weddings, reunions, graduations, Christmas celebrations, receptions, and funerals.
“People offer to pay me to play at funerals, but I refuse. How can I ever accept money for that?” Said Griffin. “The joke among local morticians is that I’ve been to more funerals than they have.”
Jeff Rasmussen, a local mortician, is one of her former students as well as a longtime friend. He said he still remembers his lessons from ages 8 to 11 with Griffen.
“She’s a great teacher, and her emphasis on modulation, the circle of fifths, and tips on sight reading gave me a firm foundation,” said Rasmussen, who majored in organ performance at Brigham Young University.
Griffin’s decades-long love of music began when she was 14 and started taking piano lessons.
“Each lesson cost $1, and every Saturday at 8 a.m. I walked a mile to my teacher’s house with my money,” Griffin said. “No one ever had to remind me to practice. In fact, it was just the opposite. My mother would tell me it was time for me to quit playing and do dishes or help with other housework.”
As she became more proficient, Griffin’s appreciative parents asked her to play for holidays and family celebrations.
“The piano stayed at my parents’ home, and they’d ask me to play at Christmas or for birthdays,” she said.
Griffin also plays requests from her husband, Theron, her biggest fan.
“She plays my favorite song, “Danny Boy,” or music from the 1950s,” Theron said.
After they were married in 1954, Griffin wanted her own piano and researched different brands, finally choosing one from the Sohmer & Co.
“I paid it off at $28 a month,” she said. “It’s so well made that it rarely needs to be tuned.”
Theron is proud of her musical prowess.
“After having her piano for two years, you could put any piece of music in front of her, and she could play it without practicing,” he said.
Griffin said the more she played, she realized she prefers the key of F.
“I’ve always liked the sound of it and how all the notes just seem to fall into place.”
Keeping Her Promise
Griffin said she usually had 23 students at a time until the fall of 2021 when she and Theron were diagnosed with COVID.
“I cut back to four,” she said. “He was hospitalized for three months, and we couldn’t have people coming into the house for lessons, so I did lessons on Facetime. We’re better now, so students started coming to the house again last fall.”
When she started teaching, Griffin said she detested certain instructional methods and vowed to never do them.
“You’d hear the horror stories. Some teachers would take a ruler and smack students’ fingers if they accidentally hit the wrong key. How much fun is that? Why would any teacher do such a thing? I made sure all my students knew I loved them.”
Griffin said she motivates her students by sharing her love of music and encouraging them. She has only a few rules.
“Students have to take a certificate I make for them with my favorite musical saying on it, ‘When words fail, music speaks.’”
She also has her students pick a favorite piece or hymn and to always be ready to perform it, “so you can share your music.”
She said her recital requirements have a different format.
“My students play solo and then play a duet or trio with fellow students.”
Griffin not only taught at home but also at St. Nicholas Catholic School in Rupert two days a week for 15 years.
“When I was 70, the principal called and asked me to start a music program,” she said. “How could I say no? When I started, there wasn’t one sheet of music in the entire school. We had a great time with choirs and musical programs.”
Griffin said some friends quit piano because they developed arthritis in their hands, making it painful to play.
“If you quit moving your fingers, it just gets worse,” she said. “My hands hurt a little when I play, but you just have to keep going. I’ll always be teaching and playing.”
Griffin said her students have become lifelong friends.
“I still keep in touch with a lot of them,” she said. “Best of all, many have become piano teachers.” ISI