By Ingrid Schnader
Theresa McKibben is gearing up for her performance with the Dill Pickers at the Central Alabama Theater. But before McKibben was one of the seven musicians who make up the Dill Pickers band, she was a little girl begging her mom to let her take piano lessons.
“My mother had a terrible experience with piano,” she said. “Her mother made her take (lessons), and she really didn’t want to. So when I started begging her to take piano lessons, she was like, ‘No, we can find other things for you to do.’”
She finally started taking piano lessons when she was in fourth grade in Magnolia, Mississippi. In addition to her passion for piano, she also grew up knowing she wanted to be a teacher, just like her mom was.
“When I’d come home, I would line my dolls up on the bed and teach to them,” McKibben remembered. “I always knew I would be a teacher.”
When she got older, McKibben decided to go to college for a degree in English. She thought she wanted to teach English and do music on the side. But when she tried out for the college choir the summer before her freshman year, her voice professor started writing her letters encouraging her to be a music major.
“He really kind of steered me in that direction,” she said. “And I’m so thankful, because I decided to major in music education.”
McKibben would later be a quarterfinalist for the first-ever Grammy award in music education.
Her career in music education started in a school in Jackson, Mississippi – the same school where she did her student teaching. There was another school in Jackson where she also taught. In both of those schools, McKibben had to teach music without having a classroom.
“The schools were so crowded,” she said. “I had a cart that I pushed, and I went room to room and taught music.”
McKibben took a break from teaching after the birth of her first child. Six years later, she heard about an opening in Homewood at Edgewood Elementary.
“Jobs at really great schools don’t come open that often, especially in music,” she said. “So I went and tried for that job, and I got it.”
She later found out that there were more than 50 applicants for the position.
Life at a Well-Supplied School
“I went from teaching in Mississippi, where I didn’t have a classroom, to being in Homewood, where there’s such wonderful supporters of the arts and everything,” she said. “My classroom had everything you can imagine.”
During her time there, McKibben started an annual talent show to raise money for her classroom.
“We didn’t charge admission, but we’d have a bucket at the door and say, ‘This year we’re collecting money for Mrs. McKibben’s drum fund,’” she said. “And parents would just give money. And that’s how I got 30 drums in my classroom.”
McKibben teaches students on the guitar, too, but she said piano will always be her favorite instrument.
The best part about teaching music, McKibben said, is seeing the students come alive in the classroom.
“Some kids are not great students in school,” she said. “Math may not be their strong subject, or reading. But music is a class that everybody can excel in. And it makes them feel good about themselves.”
A year before McKibben retired, the Recording Academy created a Grammy award in music education. The Edgewood Elementary principal nominated McKibben, and she made it all the way to the quarterfinals.
“Even though I taught music, there was so much more that I tried to teach my kids, about things like being a good citizen,” she said. “Many times I told them stories about myself and the way I was raised, and I feel like that rubbed off on kids. They love to hear stories about their teachers, about things that you did.”
The Dill Pickers Are Born
It’s been three years since McKibben retired from elementary school teaching, but she continues to stay busy with her music. She recently took up violin lessons, which she said is a challenge she loves. She also teaches a Wednesday night music class at her church, and she recently tried out for the Alabama Symphony Chorus and got accepted. And, of course, she plays with the Dill Pickers.
The band started when they were all actors in a 1999 play at Trinity United Methodist Church. McKibben said the play was such a success that everyone in the play are now the Dill Pickers.
Norton Dill, the group’s banjo player, started writing plays for the group to perform.
“He went up on Sand Mountain and visited the people up there,” she said. “And the interesting thing is they have music festivals at their houses. Like somebody will host a festival, all these people come in, bring instruments, and bring food and they stay and play all day. So he wrote this crazy play and all seven of us are in it, but each of us play four different characters. … And we all play various instruments. We change instruments. And it’s a hoot.”
The play is called Sand Mountain Saturday Night, and the group performed it up until June of this year.
With different people in the group moving to different states, it’s getting harder for the seven to perform together. That’s why McKibben is especially excited about the group’s upcoming performance.
“Music is just one of those things that is a lifelong thing you can have,” McKibben said. “I’m so thankful for my parents giving me the background that they did and encouraging me in my music.”
Tickets for the Dill Pickers event are $30. To buy tickets, go to eventbrite.com and search for Dill Pickers. The event is Sept. 29, 7:30-9:30 p.m. at Central Alabama Theater.