When music didn’t make the cut in public schools, Elsie Barnes opened her own doors

“I don’t know how many children I’ve taught,” Elsie Barnes said.

That’s not surprising. Barnes has taught music for decades, and at age 82, she’s just now cutting back. Recently, she was recognized by the Gulf Coast Music Teachers Association for her years of service, in both school and private teaching.

A plaque presented to her noted that she is “devoted to cultivating the love of music in the hearts and minds of countless children on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.”

She’s been here on the Coast for more than half a century. After she graduated from college in 1958, she went to Greenville and taught music there before arriving on the Coast in 1963.

“I taught music for 21 years, grades 1 to 6,” she said. she retired from teaching in 1997.

“Altogether I was in the public schools about 38 and a half years,” she said.

There was one deciding factor that led her to retire from teaching in school.

“They took music out of the public schools, and I didn’t want to lose my love for music. So I started teaching piano out of my house,” she said.

Barnes grew up in Kemper County.

“We lived outside DeKalb,” she said. “We were farmers, and my mother had 10 children.” Piano lessons were scarce; once a month, she would go to a teacher in Philadelphia for lessons.

“I was about second level when I entered college,” she said.

She won a scholarship from the Masons and attended Coahoma Junior College, but the school wasn’t set up for a music program, so she transferred to Jackson State University in 1956.

“I never thought about singing, but the director there was impressed with my voice,” she said. However, her piano level was insufficient for an emphasis in that area.

“I was always disappointed in that,” she said.

But as a general music teacher to elementary school students, teaching singing, history and music theory, her level was just right.

“It was nice for me that the children I taught were in the elementary grades,” she said. “I could play by ear. I was always able to play sufficiently for school, and we also used records.”

When she began teaching piano out of her home, a few adjustments were made.

“When I first set up my studio at my home, I had 40 students. We closed in the carport. And I never had less than 20 students until the last three years. I’ve definitely been cutting back,” she said.

As a teacher, she has been able to tell which students are likely to stick it out, which ones will excel and which ones likely will drop out.

“Two or three times, I’ve gotten someone who just had that natural rhythm and feel, who’s not only gifted or mildly gifted, but truly gifted,” she said. “We all have special talents, but you can tell when someone truly has the desire to play, and when they have the desire to learn.”

And not everybody with talent goes into music.

“The most gifted student I had went into law,” she said, laughing.

She presents a handbook to parents.

“Mamas get a handbook, and I go over it with the parent and the child,” she said. “There are things I’ll tolerate and certain things I won’t. I teach with goals in mind. My lessons are not just to read a note.”

She might be known best as a teacher, but Barnes serves in other ways, too.

“I’m a minister. I accepted the call after I retired. I was in my late 60s when I yielded,” she said. She was the pastor for three years at St. James United Methodist Church. “Then my health started failing, and I retired at 70.”

She might not be pastor at a church now, but she ministers to others in different ways.

“I’m working with the Boyington (Health and Rehabilitation Center); I lead the worship program there once a week, and I’m associate pastor at Haven Chapel United Methodist Church,” she said.

Teaching, either in school or privately, whether music or the word of God, has been a vital part of her life.

“I love to teach. I really enjoy teaching,” she said.

Tammy Smith: 228-896-2130, @Simmiefran1

About the series

Our Kind of People is a feature in the Sun Herald and at that spotlights South Mississippi people whose life or work is an inspiration to others.