Written by Ann Cipperly
Opelika Observer

Mary Slaton has had a lifelong love of music. Whether it is the piano or French horn, Slaton’s home on Third Ave. in Opelika is often filled with music.

To share her love of music with others, Slaton is organizing the East Alabama Community Concert Band, which will meet on Monday nights with the first meeting March 5 from 6:30 p.m. until 7:30 p.m. at The Culture Center of East Alabama, formerly Brown School, at 1103 Glenn Street in Opelika.

Slaton grew up in a large family on a farm in Beauregard. One of her six siblings was the late Dr. William Lazenby. He told Slaton she was playing the piano at age five, but she doesn’t remember.

Their mother, Mamie Lazenby, played the piano by ear and had perfect pitch. Slaton was the only one of her children who inherited this gift. Slaton took piano lessons growing up, and her mother gave her a choice to either wash dishes or practice on the piano. As Slaton played, her mother would often sing.

When she was in the ninth grade, she decided she wanted to be in a band, which Beauregard High School did not offer. Her parents always supported her love of music. In order for her to be in a school band, they would drive her over the Lee County line where she would catch a bus for the hour ride to Tuskegee High School.

She remembers the first day in band when the director asked her what musical instrument she wanted to play. “I told him saxophone or drums,” said Slaton. “He handed me a French horn, and I asked what it was.”

With a fingering chart, she began playing the French horn. While her mother adored her piano music, she wasn’t as thrilled over the sounds of the horn. She sent Slaton to play in the back of the house, and when that didn’t work, she told her she would have to practice in the car.

After graduating from high school, Slaton attended and graduated from Montevallo in music. She returned to Beauregard for a couple of years to form a band at the high school and to teach music. “I was fortunate to start out my piano teaching career at Beauregard teaching Philip Preston,” said Slaton. She also started a band at Macon Academy.

She moved with her husband and son to Memphis where she graduated with a master’s degree in music. “When I was in Memphis working on my master’s degree in piano performance,” remembers Slaton, “I played at the Hyatt Regency and Hilton and also a restaurant called the Moonraker. The piano was 20 feet up in a crow’s nest, and I had to get someone to hold the rope ladder every time I went up to play. Luckily back then jumpsuits were popular.”

After the marriage ended, Slaton made a chart of all of the places she would like to live and decided to move to Atlanta in 1978. When the economy was good, she found plenty of work playing piano in churches, country clubs, large hotels and private parties. She also gave lessons. “Recently, I learned that a former piano student from Marietta has been chosen to compete vocally on the Voice. His stage name is Pip, and I’m very excited for him.”

With a downturn in the economy, much of the work ended. She had always planned to retire in Opelika and wanted to do so while Dr. Lazenby was still practicing medicine. She moved to Opelika in 1995, but continued to drive to Atlanta on weekends for work at large hotels. Not being able to find enough work locally, she continued the weekend work for 15 years.

She played piano at Terra Cotta restaurant for four or five years until the owner closed the restaurant and began a catering business at Saugahatchee Country Club during Sunday brunch, and also at a local church.

Slaton plays the piano in a trio that entertains at wedding receptions and special events. She has 27 piano students and is teaching music appreciation at Southern Union.

She has been thinking about starting a community concert band on those drives to Atlanta. Slaton believes that a community band will enhance the entertainment opportunities in East Alabama. “One of the reasons I want to start the band,” she adds, “is that I want to play the French horn in a band.” She hopes they can do a spring, Fourth of July or fall concert.

Dr. Michael Marcades, music director of First United Methodist Church, is going to be the conductor. Already several high school band directors and students have expressed an interest in being in the band.

Slaton invites those who have not played for a while to attend. “We want to include the community as a whole,” said Slaton. Anyone who has questions or needs directions can call her at (334) 749 5252.