ROSE HILL — The sign on the wall reads “Music is what feelings sound like,” and if the notes ringing from the sunburst-finish Univox guitar cradled on her lap are any indication, Nellie Fields is feeling very good indeed.
Huddled inside a small room inside Duplin Music Academy in Rose Hill with her niece, Jerry Rainey, and music instructor Ronnie Castellano, the 90-year-old Pender County native peers out from beneath a white baseball cap as her fingers move delicately over the guitar strings.
“That’s the one you showed us last week,” she says to Castellano, as the sound of the prerecorded backing track playing through a computer mixes with the sound of the trio’s accompaniment.
For Fields, the opportunity to express her love of music has been a long time coming. Born in Willard in 1921, Fields moved to New York with her family when she was a young girl. She would go on to establish a career with the Veteran’s Administration in 1943, serving in the Women’s Auxiliary Corp (WAAC), which was later known as the Women’s Army Corp (WAC).
“My husband, John, played in a band for weddings and other events when he was alive,” remembered Fields. “I always wanted to play. He used to tease me because I couldn’t. I bought a guitar when I was 60 but never learned.”
Fields retired after 30 years of service and, after decades of living on Army bases throughout the U.S., moved back to her hometown with her husband in the early ‘80s. For the next 30 years, Fields concentrated on her family and another of her life’s passions, crocheting.
Several months ago, Rainey, who had inherited a hand-me-down guitar from her grandmother, decided it was time to dust off the instrument and learn how to play.
“It was something to do. I took piano lessons when I was 10 and always wanted to play guitar,” said Rainey, a Navy veteran who, at 55, is getting a relatively early start in music education compared to her aunt.
In an effort to overcome her apprehensions about the lessons, Rainey asked Fields if she would like to join her once a week at Duplin Music Academy, an invitation Fields was only too happy to accept.
“I’ve always wanted to play jazz,” said Fields. “I was always a fan of the music. I like B.B. King, Jimmy Dorsey, Duke Ellington.”
Rainey said her aunt’s decision pushed her to move forward with the lessons. “Without her I wouldn’t be doing this. Now we can motivate each other and learn at the same time.”
Despite her age, Fields said she is determined to master her instrument. “I practice every day, two hours in the morning and two hours at night. When I don’t it tells on me.”
During a lesson with Castellano last week at the Duplin Music Academy, Fields and Rainey unpacked their guitars and joined the veteran guitar instructor for an hour-long session. Castellano, with the assistance of musical selections he keyed up using two computers, guided the pair through melodies and licks taught over the past two months, combining the new skills and patiently instructing his students how to play their parts to match a simple four-count rhythm.
Though Fields’ hands aren’t as agile as they once were, her devotion to learning was apparent in the attention she paid to Castellano’s instructions. While still a novice, she isn’t reticent when it comes to asking questions. “Have I got my fingers right. I don’t think you’ve shown us this yet,” she asked at one point, bringing a smile to Castellano’s face.
“She’ll be teaching this class before long,” quipped Rainey.
As Castellano explained that the licks he’d taught them can be played to any type of rhythm, including jazz, swing, and country, Fields recalled time she spent in the Midwest during her Army days. “I used to hear county music when I was stationed in Missouri,” she remembered. “You’d turn on the radio and that’s all you’d hear. I got to where I liked it.”
As Fields repeated the lick again and again on her electric guitar, her foot tapped out the rhythm as her head bent in concentration. “Now you’ve got it,” said Castellano, leaning forward from his perch on a nearby stool.
As he picked out a steady rhythm, Fields and Rainey embellished it with a circular pattern of notes, growing more confident as the music progressed. “We’re just trying to find a rhythm,” said Castellano, gently rocking back and forth with the music.
Later in the session, Fields curled her left hand around the neck of her guitar, spreading her calloused fingers around the fifth fret as she struggled with a major seventh jazz chord. “That’s not right,” she said slowly, as her pick worked over the strings, producing a few dead notes. “I’ll have to go home and practice this one.”
After the session, Fields handed her guitar to Rainey. “I’ve got to find a lighter guitar,” she told her niece. “ That one starts to get heavy to me.”
Both students said their sessions have gone well so far. “It’s been going fine, I’m really enjoying it,” said Fields. “He teaches from the bottom up, and that’s what I need.”
“It went good. He’s a good teacher,” commented Rainey.
“They’re both doing great,” said Castellano. “We do take the age factor into consideration during the lessons.”
Though she hasn’t learned to play any complete songs yet, Fields said her goal is to learn one of her favorite numbers, the Ray Charles classic “Georgia on My Mind.”
“At my age there’s nothing else to do,” said Fields. “There’s the guitar, the TV, and the computer—those are my three things.”
Fields said her new endeavor is just one expression of her commitment to living life to the fullest, a frame of mind her contemporaries don’t always share.
“Some of my friends have gotten discouraged. They use every excuse in the world. I’m 90-years-old; it doesn’t mean you’re dead.”
“Just try it, try everything,” said Fields about her outlook on life. “I know how old I am, but I don’t know how old I feel. I’m not as fast or quick but I do anything I want. I haven’t lost confidence yet.”
As proof of her determination to stay mentally and physically active, Fields said her nieces and nephews are teaching her to do the “Electric Slide” dance. “I’m also going to relearn algebra,” said Fields, as a smile played across her still youthful features.
“You just have to keep going,” said Fields, as she lifted her guitar case and followed her niece out into the late spring afternoon. “Just keep going.’