My Piano Teachers

My uncle Curtis was also a church organist. I think this picture was taken at the Lutheran church on Route 422 just outside Stouchsburg, PA.

My uncle Curtis (father’s brother) was a music teacher and started to teach me to play the piano about the time I began kindergarten. As a result, I knew how to read music before I could read words.

He continued to teach me while we lived on the farm (the piano was in my grandparents house; it was their farm, we lived in the house on the other side of the meadow that would normally be rented out) and after we moved to Richland, my parents bought a piano, so Curtis resumed the lessons there, coming to our home and charging us a dollar a lesson. After about a year of that, he said he was no longer going to give piano lessons as his full time job kept him too busy (he was the music teacher for several schools in our area, including mine), so I had to find another teacher. I’ve long suspected that his real reason for stopping the lessons was that I was a lousy student (I seldom practiced).

After I had been taking lessons from Mrs. Layser for about a year, she started me on Czerny exercises, terrible music but good for the fingers.After I had been taking lessons from Mrs. Layser for about a year, she started me on Czerny exercises, terrible music but good for the fingers.

In those days Richland (population just under 1300) had two piano teachers: Mrs. Fromm, a barber’s wife (we had two barbers also), who was very strict and (so the story went) kept her piano in a humidity-controlled room that was insufferably warm; and Mrs. Layser. I opted for Mrs. Layser. She was married to Neal Layser, who I think was in my mother’s class in school; I remember him telling me, jokingly, that he and my mother went to different schools together, but I don’t recall the details. This was in 1959 when I was ten; I can state that with some authority because I still have some of the music exercise books annotated with the date. I think she charged $1.25 per lesson.

Anyway, Mrs. Layser, whom I called “Ann” (maybe because I was used to calling my uncle by his first name?), was a great teacher, but I still didn’t practice regularly. I remember times I would show up at her house for a lesson and it was painfully obvious that I had never practiced the pieces even one time; it was obvious because I stumbled badly when playing the piece for her and showed dramatic improvement when she had me play through it a second time.

I also remember being extremely embarrassed a couple years later when I realized all her other students called her “Mrs. Layser”; but not embarrassed enough to change–“Ann” was what I continued to call her.

When I was about 12, the Laysers moved away from Richland (to get away from me? I don’t think so; I believe they moved for Neal’s job), and I had to find another teacher. By this time Mrs. Penchard was giving lessons. She was married to my 7th grade music teacher who often said that men should marry like he did: find a woman a few years older because women have slightly longer lifespans. Supposedly this would improve the odds that when they went, they’d go together. I think that was a serious misapplication of actuarial tables.

My first encounter with Czerny's studies was Excellent!My first encounter with Czerny's studies was Excellent!

Mrs. Penchard (and having learned my lesson, I did call her Mrs. Penchard) had a reputation as an excellent pianist; it was said that she gave up a promising concert career in order to marry and raise a family.

I think I was slightly intimidated by her reputation, though she was a sweet, sweet person, so I did practice a bit more for her than I had previously. But my problem always was this: I wanted to be able to play the piano well, but I didn’t want it badly enough that I was willing to put in the practice time. That’s sort of the story of my life; I’m only willing to spend time learning things that come easy (you know, like computery stuff). So after a year or possibly two, I stopped the lessons altogether. Or perhaps my parents were tired of paying for the lessons as I never seemed to show any improvement. I believe the price was about $1.50 by that time.

A sad footnote: just a year or two after I stopped taking lessons from her, Mrs. Penchard developed cancer and died.

Later on in the early 70s, when I was living on my own, my parents bought me a used piano, which I think I gave to a church when I moved away from Richland. In 1978 or 79 when I lived in Harrisburg, I bought a new piano on the installment plan; that’s the one I still have today. Over the years I have waxed and waned in the amount of time I devote to it.

I still love the idea of being able to play fluently, but not enough to motivate me to sit down and practice, practice, practice…

Update: My sister, who also took piano lessons, informs me that Shirley Penchard didn’t die until 1977, a whole decade after my recollection.

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