1 June 2019

Audrey’s key to musical success

Mary-Anne Johnson

Mary-Anne Johnson

Now retired, Mary-Anne spent many years working in Catholic education media in Tasmania

Audrey White is unhappy that Mass is not as popular these days. But times have changed and younger people are generally not very church-minded.

Audrey, who’s been playing the piano since she was eight and who recently celebrated her 88th birthday, is quick to point out that music is not to blame for the decline in church attendance.

“People have become more self-sufficient and think they can do everything without God, but, I’m afraid, they can’t,” she says with conviction. “We’ve had so many little miracles in our family life. I really don’t know how people can get on without prayer and God’s help.”

That aside, Audrey continues to play at Mass every Saturday night and also accompanies a choir at a local nursing home. I know quite a lot about Audrey as it turns out because she’s my wonderful mother.

Audrey learnt piano when she was schooled by the Sisters of St Joseph at Sacred Heart College in New Town, Tasmania. She was educated in the 1930s and 40s at a time when Mass was in Latin, the choir sang in Latin and the Second Vatican Council wasn’t even on the horizon.

A diligent pupil, Audrey passed all her music exams with flying colours and obtained the AMusA qualification at the age of 15. She could have qualified at 14, she adds, but the piano exam was deferred as the Sisters wanted her to concentrate on her school studies.

The parish instrument back then was a harmonium (pump organ) that had to be pedalled continuously. Audrey remembers getting into a regular rhythm with the foot pedals. “I had to connect all the notes with my fingers and not rely on the sustaining pedal like a piano,” she recalls. “You got used to it.”

People sang traditional hymns and didn’t need hymn books or overhead screens as they knew the words off by heart. Catholics from that era can still recite such classics as ‘Hail Queen of Heaven’, ‘Soul of my Saviour’, ‘Tantum Ergo’ and ‘Faith of our Fathers’.

Audrey soon found herself playing at many school and church events: the morning march-ins, physical exercises, dancing classes, school Masses and Benedictions.

She would also walk to the Redemptorist Monastery on Tuesday and Saturday evenings to play for the monks who couldn’t afford to buy the sheet music. There were no photocopiers, so Audrey wrote out the music by hand. It was a voluntary job and for her efforts she’d occasionally be rewarded with some eggs from the chickens the monks owned.

The eggs were a humble offering and weren’t the reason Audrey played for the monks. “I did it because they asked me, they had no-one else,” she says.

Audrey would also play for the choir at Boys Town, run by the Salesian Brothers. She remembers playing in an old cow barn, where the Brothers’ afternoon tea offering was bread and a slab of butter.

From the age of 14, she played live on ABC radio, including Radio Australia, which broadcast around the world. After her formal education, Audrey went to university and then found herself back at school as a high school teacher. Along the way Audrey married John and together they had seven children, though one child died young.

In the 1960s, Audrey was secretary of the parish liturgy committee, which helped implement changes to the Mass following the Second Vatican Council. The increased participation of lay people and more singing in the liturgy were welcomed. She was also fond of the switch from Latin to English in the liturgy, but not so excited about the modern hymns that, she believes, the congregation find harder to sing.

Despite that, she’s chosen a few ‘modern’ hymns for her funeral – a list that keeps growing as she discovers new favourites.

After a long and fruitful life as a wife, mother, teacher and pianist, Audrey has a simple philosophy: “If you can do something, you should do it. That’s why you’re given gifts – to use them for other people, as well as yourself.”


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