Linda Grant Ross was a little girl in the 1950s when she first set eyes on a piano.

At the time, her mother was a cook for Myrtle Braman, who lived at 206 W. Stayton St., which is today a historic Victoria home. Ross’ father also worked for the Bramans as a chauffeur, and the couple occasionally brought their children to the home.

“We lived in the country and Mom and Dad would go to work in town, so it was a real treat to go with them,” Ross, 69, remembered.

One of reasons she enjoyed visiting the Braman home, from which she can still recall the sweet pungency of magnolias, was the opportunity to play the old piano.

“Mrs. Braman didn’t fuss,” Ross recalled, remembering the first time she banged loudly on the upright’s keys as a curious 5-year-old. “She was happy I was playing because it was just sitting there.”

As Ross grew a few years older, the late Braman, who was a retired teacher and blind, paid for the young prodigy to take piano lessons at St. Mary’s Catholic Church, which then cost 75 cents a lesson.

Before Ross was 10 years old, she was playing at Mt. Nebo Baptist Church for Bible study classes, then the worship choir, with many adults realizing she had a gift for the keys.

“She had such a talent, a God-given talent, and it was obvious she was something special,” said Laura Sanders, who was a teenager at Mt. Nebo when she first remembers the 9-year-old Ross performing at the church. “There’s nothing she can’t play.”

Braman’s investment in those childhood lessons were the catalyst of a lifelong love of music and piano performance in the African-American churches in South Texas, where today she’s known as one of the best.

“I have no doubt in my mind she could have gone further with her piano playing, but it wasn’t her primary goal,” Sanders said. “Her goal was to be a good pianist in a good church, and Mt. Nebo has definitely benefited from that all these years.”

For the past 60 years, Ross has performed for the same church and has become somewhat of a legacy among the generations. Members came and went, families expanded and contracted, but the staple on Sunday morning was, and continues to be, Ross behind the piano.

Ross said part of her longevity was the ability to play by ear, a term in music meaning she didn’t need a music book. She can hear any song and duplicate it live. She can also compose and produce piano music around any key, so joining in to a choir, padding a prayer as a preacher comes near the end of a sermon or simply being asked to follow a singer, comes naturally.

“It’s always been something in my blood. I love playing; it’s so relaxing,” she said.

Though she’s confident in her ability to play with the best musicians anywhere, she remains humble about her path. Her talent was always tethered to her hometown church.

“This was my calling,” she said, mentioning retirement is not something she speaks of. As long as she’s able to tickle the keys, she will keep on playing and worshiping God at Mt. Nebo.

“I hope God gives me the ability to continue on,” she said. “I couldn’t even imagine not being able to play anymore.”

Jennifer Preyss-Mathlouthi writes about religion and faith for the Victoria Advocate. You can reach her at jenniferpreyss.com, or on Twitter @jenniferpreyss.

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