Neoma Nill was 7 years old when she first picked up her mother’s Hohner harmonica and began learning to play. It wasn’t easy at first, but she was determined. With the help of an instruction book and some dedicated practice, the rancher’s daughter from rural Oregon was soon blowing tunes like a maestro.
If her musical knack was innate, it was sparked by practicality. It was the early 1930s — the dawn of the Great Depression — when music programming on the radio was sketchy and on-demand entertainment was limited to the family’s small collection of wax phonograph records. It was tough times for a music lover — unless you could play an instrument.
Harmonica was just the beginning for Nill. Piano came next, and then the coronet. Her appetite for musical learning was insatiable. But along with the music, Nill also inherited something else from her mother: retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative retinal disease marked by progressively narrowing vision, often leading to blindness. Nill, 82, has been legally blind since 1976, yet the music still flows daily from her room at Cottage Glen Assisted Living in Tooele, where she’s resided since last spring.
“I tend to be tenacious,” said Nill last week as she sat next to her piano at Cottage Glen.
Nill is perceptive and well-spoken, exuding a certain quiet cheerfulness. After insisting that her piano skills are far from expert, she described how she had figured out the notes to a new song just that morning, then transposed the song to a more agreeable key.
“I tried it in about three different keys before I got it in a place where it sounded right,” she said.
The desire to accurately reproduce the tunes playing in her mind, she explained, is what drives her continued exploration.
Nill’s musical tenacity was apparent from her childhood. After mastering the harmonica, she set out to learn piano — an instrument her family did not own and was in no position to acquire. Consequently, Nill’s piano time was limited to visits to her cousins’ home.
“Every time we visited out there, I had them sit down and show me anything they could teach me,” Nill said. “It was just a quest.”
She practiced whenever and wherever she could find a piano, and at age 14 she memorized Raymond Egan’s World War I era ballad “Till We Meet Again.” As a high school student, she learned to play the coronet and even dabbled in guitar.
She married Robert Nill, a rancher and musician in his own right, in 1949. Together they raised four children on a ranch in Oregon’s John Day Valley. According to Nill, her husband had a unique musical savvy that helped her with her own learning.
But as Nill’s musical skills were flourishing, her vision began to decline.
“My mother had informed me, ‘You will be blind when you’re an old lady,’” Nill said. “And of course I’m a little kid and I’m thinking, ‘Don’t be silly, I have really good eyes.’”
Although her eyesight had been gradually diminishing for years, the process was slow enough that Nill hadn’t noticed. Her condition was discovered when she was about 45 years old, when she visited a doctor after a baseball she tried to catch hit her in the eye.
“I reached out to catch a fly ball and I totally missed it,” she said. “I wasn’t a bad ball player. The evening light was refracting, and for somebody like me, it changes your perception of where things are.”
Nill refused to let the diagnosis dim her ambition. She continued to play her instruments and perform with her husband at various functions. She even helped him compose a waltz that was later professionally arranged. Nill took up painting in the 1980s, when her field of vision was reduced to a very narrow strip. She and Robert served a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City from 1998 to 2000 and relocated permanently to Tooele the following year. Their son David also lives in Tooele. Her husband passed away last spring.
With Nill through it all has been her collection of Hohner harmonicas — she’s staunchly loyal to the brand — and a McPhail piano given to her by her husband’s mother. While vision isn’t necessary to play the harmonica, Nill said the piano is more challenging. Since she is unable to read music or see keys, she must play everything by ear and feel her way around from middle C.
“When I could see the keys I would hit an octave, then chord, and now I tend to keep my hands in one place and play broken chords,” she said as she played a section of Betty Blasco’s “My Happiness.”
Nill practices her instruments every day, much to the delight of her neighbors.
“They can hear it down the hall and they enjoy it,” she said. “If I can lift people’s spirits with a little music, that’s great.”
Nill also believes playing the harmonica keeps her healthy, citing a time when she had been prescribed oxygen treatment.
“That little thing they have you blow up, I thought, ‘I can do that with a harmonica.’ So I got out my harmonica and started playing it, and within a month I was off of that oxygen,” she said. “That’s a lot more fun.”
As large, dense snowflakes began falling outside Nill’s window, she turned to the piano and played a bright rendition of “Aloha ‘Oe.”
“You can be happy wherever you are,” she said. “That’s always been my philosophy. It’s a matter of attitude.”