She’s a self-proclaimed “music nerd.” Even in childhood, she was mesmerized by music with the kind of passion that consumes modern-day techie geeks.
As a 3-year-old, she yearned for a piano. In the sixth grade, she discovered her grand lifelong love for the flute.
Lisa Peery never wavered from her musical obsession. She earned a music education degree from West Virginia State. She played for 25 years with the West Virginia Symphony, a stint that started in college.
She gave up public school teaching for the freedom of private instruction. Today, she teaches a steady flow of music students in the spacious studio connected to her South Hills home.
A rare female instrumentalist, she plays with a guitar partner for weddings and cocktail parties and performs at city nightspots. She also writes and sings.
At 58, her life, as she envisioned so long ago, revolves around music.
Last year, that life was sorely threatened. A toxic reaction to bouts of heavy drinking left her lethargic, emaciated and, finally, near death.
Defying all odds, her stubborn, I-can-do-this streak saved her and brought her to this new and happy place.
She’s vibrant, energetic and optimistic -- and buoyed, as always, by the abiding and promising joy of music.
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“I was born and raised in St. Albans. When I was about 3, I told my mom I wanted a piano. She got me a toy piano. I said no, I wanted a real piano. She got me a bigger toy piano. Then she finally got this $75 upright when I was in the first grade. She said if I stayed with it, she would buy me a new one. I played on that sucker for 12 years. Then she got me a new piano, and I moved out.
“I took lessons all those years. My great-grandmother played piano for the silent movies and vaudeville. She was very trained, but that’s the only music background I had. My dad was a Carbide lifer. Mom’s an artist and taught art in South Charleston.
“I was a music nerd. In sixth grade, I picked up the flute. You had to pick an instrument for the band. My mom wanted me to play trombone. My older brother had a trombone and she wouldn’t have to buy one.
“I wanted to play flute because flute gets to play melody all the time. I just clicked with it. In school, kids would say ‘that flute is growing into your face’ because I was practicing all the time. Any free period, I was in the music room.
“I was a typical nerd. I didn’t have a big circle of people. I was very shy. I kind of hid behind the music. People thought I was a snob, but I was just super shy. Teaching pulls you out of it because you are constantly having to pull somebody in.
“I started playing organ in church in seventh grade. I learned to read real well by playing. I did that until 12th grade. In eighth grade, I started lessons with June Warhoftig.
“Music was pretty much it. The preacher came to the house and I was in like the sixth grade and I said I wanted to be a musician. He said, ‘Don’t do that. It’s a dog’s life.’ I never forgot that.
“I knew I would have to marry an artist of some sort because they appreciate how much passion you have and how much time you invest in it. Al plays trombone. We both have K-12 music ed degrees.
“To make a living, I knew I had to teach. I hated it. I got thrown into it right out of college. I did a long-term sub. I did Wilson, Lincoln and Stonewall, the whole West Side. It was hard, being fresh out of college, a rough beginning.
“I took a full-time job at Wilson for a year. I was actually choral director there. I do sing, but I’m an instrumentalist. I love the teaching part, but there is a lot of bickering and meetings and back biting. Just stick me in the room and let me teach. That’s why I love private teaching.
“I let my certificate lapse so I wouldn’t go back. A couple of years ago, I checked on getting my certification to go back and sub and it was going to cost $2,000 and I’d have to take all these education classes I’d already had and here I’d been teaching since 11th grade. They don’t make it easy.
“I first taught at Herbert Music. I went there to buy a piccolo. My mother said I had to pay for half of it. I needed a job. He said they needed a piano teacher. They hired me and I liked it.
“My senior year in college, I auditioned for the symphony in flute and piccolo and I was there for 25 years.
“I started playing gigs with bands. And I still did the church. I was burning pretty hard. The symphony always had to come first. Church kept getting pushed farther down, so I finally had to stop. We would play these gigs until 2 in morning and have to break down and I would get home at 6 and have to be in church at 9. And I was still doing weddings with a guitar partner.
“I started playing at the Chilton House in college. Claudette and Leroy Rashid insist that they gave me my start and they did. I needed a summer job. I figured I could wait tables or something. I was fearless.
“I had on shorts, straight from the pool. The manager scanned me up and down, and I had long legs, and she threw some tights at me and said to be back at 4. I started as a cocktail waitress and I was terrible. I knew some drinks had funny names. This car salesman came in after work and asked for a Roman Coke. I went to the bartender. She said she’d never heard of that. She got a book out. This guy needed a drink. He finally said, ‘Look, you put a little rum in a glass and a little Coke and that’s it.’
“Steve Elkins, this guitar player, came in to play background music. One night I asked him if I could bring my flute. I just started noodling behind him and it fit and I started doing that while I was waiting tables. I would put my tray down and go play the flute and the people at my table would say, ‘Where’s my waitress?’
“The Rashids finally said I’d make a better musician than a cocktail waitress and hired me to play with Steve. We played together about three years.
“I played for a lot of cocktail parties and weddings with different guitar players. Steve Himes, for one. And Ryan Kennedy. My partner now is Jim Lange. I played with Still Portrait, a big horn band, for about 12 years. Then I went to Silver Penny with Kai Haines. I met so many players through him.
“We had a little band one time called the Hissy Fits. Me and Julie Adams and Sara Sandy.
“I took lessons from Bob Thompson early in college. I didn’t know any jazz. We kind of bargained. I gave his daughter flute lessons and he gave me jazz lessons.
“I started singing and writing and he helped me produce an album. It never got published, but that was great and I love him to death.
“You have to dabble in a lot of things to make it. I still don’t make a lot of money, but I’m doing what I want to do. We built this room as my studio.
“I teach more piano than flute. You don’t have as many kids taking flute privately anymore. After they get to 9th and 10th grade, they have so many course choices to make, and when it comes to art and music they don’t have time.
“I like teaching privately because I have them from kindergarten to adults. You change gears every 30 minutes. You are always juggling attitude and psychology. Sometimes you feel like a shrink. “I was having maybe five or six drinks a day, social drinking and after I got finished teaching. It snowballed. People have this stigma of people who drink too much as being a fallen-down drunk. I wasn’t. I wasn’t metabolizing alcohol. It was making me sick. I would get depressed and didn’t want to be around anybody. It just kind of took over. I was self-medicating.
“I ended up in the hospital last year and I almost died. I wouldn’t get off the couch. I wasn’t eating. No big deal. Everybody please just leave me alone. No big deal. Worry about somebody else. I was disappearing, getting sicker.
“My best friend came over, a psychologist. I didn’t go the AA route because I have a whole circle of shrink friends, a huge support system. Nobody was turning their backs. She called her friend, a nurse, who came over the next morning. She called the ambulance. I did the infamous kicking and screaming, but once they put me on that gurney, I thought, ‘I’m theirs. The party’s over.’
“It wasn’t the alcohol. It was that I was not eating and my heart was going to give out. The doctor said another 24 to 48 hours and I would have died on that couch.
“They say people drink themselves to death. A lot of times it’s not that. It’s other stuff that gets you. My heart was going to give out because I was starving.
“They plugged me into what they call banana bags, fluids and vitamins. They flush you out. If any detox issues happened, I was so ill, I didn’t notice it. I was yellow. Everything was shutting down.
“I had a lot of time to think. It wasn’t fun anymore to go to a cocktail party and have three glasses of wine and be sick for three days. The risk isn’t worth it.
“I came back. They say I came back with a vengeance.
“Mom and dad needed help in Teays Valley, so it was a blessing. I couldn’t have helped them. Dad is 82. Mom turns 80 next month. I’m kind of running two households. I’m here three days a week to teach and then go back there.
“I’m full of energy now. I get on their nerves sometimes. Dad wants to know when I’m going home.
“Everyone kept saying I couldn’t do it, that I had to join a group. I was always stubborn. My dad called me ‘Mulehead.’ That really paid off. You can’t do it? You watch me.
“I’m too old to think I’m going to hit the big time. But I want to get back out and play more and do more writing and singing.
“I don’t remember feeling this good physically. I feel really happy.”
Reach Sandy Wells at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-342-5027.