The Keys to Heaven


Eleanor Toll

An Appreciation of Eleanor Toll

I first met “Ma Toll,” as her students called her, in the early 1970’s on one of my trips to see Becky at East Carolina University which Becky attended, majoring in musical education. Becky told me that Ma wasn’t as flashy or well-known as some on the piano faculty, but I think there was something about her integrity and class that drew Becky to her. She reminded me of Becky’s piano teacher in Manassas, Virginia Carper, who was something like Eleanor and a local musical legend in her own right.

Eleanor was a first-class Southern lady, soft-spoken, gracious and kind. At the same time, she could be a reasonably demanding college professor, expecting the best from her students and not settling for anything else. Ma never had children of her own, but she regarded the hundreds of students she sat with at the keyboard year after year as her musical children. She was always interested in what I was doing, and sometimes we visited her in her small house just off campus. She made me feel welcome, and always had stories to share. After she retired and was under nursing home care, she told us that her father was a doctor in Georgia and because he did not want to learn to drive, she did, and took him around on his house calls starting at age 15. I believe this account illustrated another of Ma’s qualities at an early age: she saw a need and stepped in quietly and took care of it.

Her last years were not easy as her health declined and she required increasing  care. She told me. Fonda Sanderlin, Becky’s chorus teacher in high school and a student of Mrs. Toll, faithfully visited her for years, even when she could not respond. Fonda wrote this about Ma’s funeral service:

Everything went well at the graveside service today. This chapter of my life is over. I don’t have to go to the rest home and see a dear soul struggling to remember or trying to survive. I feel that she left me 10-12 years ago and this was just a shell we buried today.

Sveral former students also came to the service whom Fonda did not know. She learned that several of them took lessons from her privately at her home for a while because when she got married she had to stop teaching at the college whose rules didn’t allow husbands and wives to teach on the same faculty. The college changed the rule about six years later.

Becky, who of course knew her far better than I did, shared these words:

Today we are remembering a gracious Southern lady, a gifted teacher and mentor, a church musician, a cat lover and a friend to many.  All of these were found in the delightful person we knew as Eleanor Toll, or “Ma” Toll as many of her students called her.  Even though she didn’t have any biological children, those of us who were her students think of her as our musical mother. 

She spent extra time with us in piano lessons at ECU to make sure that we passed our juries each quarter or semester and that we did well on the dreaded jury on scales and arpeggios.  But it was more than about the music.  She shared funny and poignant stories with us, threw back her head and laughed at things that amused her and sympathized when we had concerns or weren’t feeling well. 

She taught piano to music education majors, composition majors and even non-music majors, always telling us to play expressively and to exaggerate the dynamics so our audience could hear them. She went the second mile so that as graduates of the ECU School of Music, we would be well-prepared for whatever style of music we needed to play on the piano. 

Today, the silver-haired lady has left us for a place where the music is even sweeter than here on earth.  Her smiles and laughs will be shared with those who have gone before her and her faithfulness to all she did will be rewarded with the words of her Lord, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” 

“Ma” Toll, may you have eternal light and eternal rest.  You deserve them both.  Thank you for all that you have done, and said and been. And may you know that hundreds of former students carry on your legacy of melody and harmony in their music and in their lives. 

Henry Adams once wrote, “Teachers affect eternity; they can never tell where their influence stops.” Eleanor Toll inspired hundreds of students to become music teachers like her, affecting by her work, care, and grace literally thousands of students across generations. And I like to think that the harp is not the preferred instrument in heaven: it is the piano, and the celestial choir gained a magnificent piano player when Eleanor Toll joined its ranks. Now she does indeed hold the keys to heaven.





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