It was Ash Wednesday, and Spokane’s own Archie Chen was seated at a piano in the Vatican in Rome.
Pope John Paul II had just finished mass, and Chen and a small group of hand-picked musicians from around the world were getting ready to play a concert for the pontiff.
The Vatican Radio Network was preparing to broadcast the concert globally. But at that moment, Chen wasn’t thinking about Beethoven’s “Spring Sonata,” the first selection of the program.
His thoughts were on a woman.
“Mary Toy was on my mind,” Chen said, thinking back to that day in February 1996. “I was just thinking about all the things she said in all those years of lessons.”
Toy has been on the minds of a lot of people lately. An icon in Spokane’s music world, Toy is moving to Kirkland, Wash., in August to be closer to her children and grandchildren.
She will conduct her final piano lesson today from the Toy Music Studio, which is based in her home at 2309 W. Rockwell.
The veteran instructor has lived in Spokane 42 years, although she’s passed on more years of musical expertise than that to her students.
“Her attitude is so positive,” Chen said. “It helps you become the same way.”
Chen, 20, began taking lessons from Toy when he was 6 years old. He has been gaining national recognition as a pianist since before he graduated from Mead High School in 1995.
He’s getting ready to start his third year at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind.
“If it wasn’t for Mary, I wouldn’t be here,” Chen said. “I feel much gratitude for having met her and studied with her.”
Jill Cutler sings Toy’s praises, and she’s never even had a formal piano lesson from her. Still, tears rush to Cutler’s eyes when she thinks about the departure of the woman who has given piano lessons to her three daughters and husband in the past 30 years.
“We feel so blessed that we’ve had her as long as we’ve had,” Cutler said, hopelessly trying to dry her eyes with a dripping wet tissue.
Toy taught Cutler’s husband, Robert, when he was a child. She then taught the couple’s three daughters, Robin, Amy and Rachel.
Toy feels the same affection for her students as they do for her.
“I’ve been blessed to be around beautiful people who were willing and wanted to learn,” Toy said. “I honestly don’t believe I’ve ever turned away more than one or two students who didn’t want to learn.”
Toy is a master.
“When people ask me, ‘Where do you take piano lessons?’ I say, ‘Mary Toy,’ and then they go, ‘Ooohhh, well that explains it,”’ said 10-year-old Mackenzie Madsen.
Madsen’s parents, Jennifer and Lon, were referred to Toy by one of her former students.
“She told us, ‘If you want a real piano teacher, then call Mary Toy,”’ Jennifer Madsen said.
Toy has had so many students in her home that years ago she had the lawn in her front yard removed and paved with blacktop so the students’ parents could have more room to park.
Two pianos sit in the front room of her home where she gives lessons.
Despite the glowing accolades from those who know her, Toy seldom discusses details about her formal music training.
“People have preconceived notions about what you know based on a sheet of paper you may or may not have earned,” Toy said.
“I know more people with Ph.D.s that don’t know two hills of beans. It’s not the piece of paper; it’s the ability to impart that knowledge to the student that counts.”
Toy will only say she’s been studying music since she was a teenager. She won’t reveal her age. Her husband, Steve Toy, died seven years ago. She still wears a wedding band.
“Age means nothing,” she said. “Life is how you live, embrace and react to it all.”
Toy is proud of one accomplishment, however. A few years ago she was presented with the prestigious Master Certificate in Piano from the National Music Teachers Association.
Toy served a brief stint on the board of directors for the Spokane Symphony in the 1950s, and she is currently a member of the state and national boards of the Music Teachers Association.
But more than the awards, Toy said she is first a music teacher.
“I bristle when I hear piano teacher,” she said. “Piano is just learning to tinkle your fingers. Teaching and learning music is a discipline.”
That is why she loves teaching students.
“It’s a form of discipline they don’t get anymore,” she explained. “Kids don’t farm land and chop trees. Seeing the kids blossom and learn how to work is what I strive for. It’s uplifting to their souls.”
Before formal lessons start, Toy sits down with a student and the child’s parent to get acquainted.
“It’s important to establish rapport in the first lesson,” Toy said.
From there, the main ingredients to understanding and playing music is learning to listen, learning music theory, reading the music and interpreting it, Toy said.
“Everybody wants to play right away,” she said. “So you give them some gratification at the start. They may have a favorite song. So you start them on it by listening to it and understanding why it was constructed the way it was.”
Toy likes her students to play every day for at least an hour.
Tony Castillo, a 20-year-old freshman at Spokane Falls Community College, has taken lessons from Toy since his freshman year at St. George’s High School.
Castillo credits Toy with resurrecting his love of music. When his first piano teacher died while he was in middle school, Castillo said he lost the desire to play.
“I had gone through three or four teachers before I just stopped,” he said. “One day, I was just hanging around a piano store, and one of the managers recommended that I see Ms. Toy. I’ve been seeing her ever since.”
Castillo said Toy pulled no punches during his first lessons.
“His technique was bad, but I saw that he had the potential to be a good musician,” Toy said.
Castillo said Toy has the “tools to make you a fine pianist.”
Toy encourages all parents, if they can, to provide their children with music lessons - whether on piano or other instruments.
“All students can be taught. Some will just be more proficient than others,” Toy said. “It won’t lead to a vocation for everyone, but it can be an avocation for supporting the arts later in life.
“I think it’s better to bang through Rachmaninoff than to create violence on the streets,” she said.
Toy said it is important for parents to have a balanced perspective when it comes to their kids. She worries about the emphasis some parents place on sports.
“Athletics are wonderful. But we’re so sports oriented today that we’ve tuned out everything else,” Toy said. “And it’s all because of the money (in sports). We’re so oriented toward the mercenary, that’s why we’re losing control of it.”
During her years of teaching in Spokane, Toy urged parents to find the talent in their children.
“I really think every one of us has a gift, and those gifts must be cultivated.”
It’s safe to say Toy has helped her students reach their potential.
Of Toy’s 23 students this past year, 13 were gold- and silver-medal winners at local music contests.
“You have to work really hard for her, 100-plus percent,” Chen said. “She’s always striving to make you better.”
Chen said Toy is more than his former music instructor. She is a friend.
“I try to call her after lessons with my teacher here (in Bloomington),” he said. “Our relationship is far deeper than teacher-student. She’s like a relative.
“Spokane will miss her.”
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