A diva for a piano teacher

Jo Anne Worley

Remember Jo Anne Worley from the Laugh-In comedy show in the sixties? If you’re under 50, you probably don’t remember her, unless you have older siblings and you remember them watching the show. Jo Anne Worley was the antithesis of Goldie Hawn’s dumb blonde pixie routine on Laugh-In. Jo Anne Worley was this loud gregarious brunette who laughed uproariously and every once in a while would suddenly emit an eardrum-breaking note in an exaggerated operatic voice. She was hilarious, much more of an actual comedienne than Goldie Hawn ever was.

As hard as I try to picture my piano teacher of 8 years who mentored me from budding 6-year-old, Fur Elise-playin’ amateur to adolescent lover of all rock-n-rollers who played the piano, as much as I appreciate now her constant nagging about my fingernails being too long and her continuous insistence that I play AT LEAST 4 or 5 hymns from our church’s hymnal every friggin’ week, every time I try to picture her face, all I see is Jo Anne Worley.

Actually, I take that back. What I really see when I try to picture Mrs. Sarah Raitch, piano teacher extraordinaire from my early childhood, is a face that’s a cross between Jo Anne Worley and Marlo Thomas in That Girl.

There are good reasons for these correlations. Number one, she wore her hair in a bouffant like Marlo Thomas in That Girl. Okay, it was the sixties, but I don’t think she changed that “do” from 1967 all the way through 1975. Plus, she was always expertly coiffed, not a hair out of place, make-up impeccable–albeit rather heavy–nails long and luxurious. She always looked like she was ready to go out. So that’s why Marlo Thomas.

As soon as I showed Mrs. Sarah Raitch that I could play the piano halfway decently, she assigned me 4 or 5 hymns each week as part of my practice. Then, when I was playing them for her at my weekly lesson, she would break out and start singing along as I played.

And I don’t mean she was quietly singing along beside me as I navigated my way through typically impossible chord inversions more suited for singers than piano players. I don’t mean she occasionally sang a line in between helping me find easier ways to play the bass in one hand and the chords in the other. Oh no, no, no! I mean she BELTED OUT THESE SONGS LIKE JO ANNE WORLEY SINGING THAT EXAGGERATED OPERATIC NOTE ON LAUGH-IN!

Ohhhhh yes! You heard me. She would sing in full operatic splendor while this little 8 or 10 or 12 year-old-girl tried my best to bang out the full repertoire of hymns she assigned to me week after week after week. She’d be smiling and singing along, and if I showed the slightest sign of hesitation, she’d yell “Keep playing!” just in case I didn’t understand exactly who this moment was about.

She really was something, Mrs. Raitch. Truth is, I wouldn’t be the piano player I am without her. For instance, guess how easy it is for me to accompany a soloist. Duh. I started accompanying people at an early age. Besides accompanying her as she belted out hymns right into my left ear, I accompanied my older sister who played the flute at an assembly while we were still in elementary school. Later on I would accompany my younger sister, who played violin. Thanks to Mrs. Raitch, I understand what it is to back somebody up, how you have to follow them no matter what they do, how you have to keep the beat for them but still skip parts if they do and wait for them if they fall behind.

And those friggin’ scales and cadences she made me play over and over and over. Man I hated them . . .

But there again, I didn’t even know what such drills were doing for me at the time. It wasn’t til years later when I realized how easily I picked up pop tunes on the piano by ear that I had to credit Mrs. Raitch for having ingrained into my little brain the I, IV, V progressions for every major key signature and their relative minors. I literally didn’t even know what I was learning at the time. It was all so much by rote. And yet there it all is, this cache of rote learning that is there whenever I need it.

As the years progressed, I used the foundation of music theory Mrs. Raitch helped me acquire to build a better understanding of more complex pieces of classical music, as well as build on my understanding of popular music genres. And being the music teacher without a music degree, I  have had to build my knowledge of music theory all on my own. But I couldn’t have done it without my diva piano teacher, Mrs. Raitch.

Nowadays, when my students obviously haven’t practiced their scales and cadences, I take the time to explain to them the value of scales and cadences. And even though sometimes they don’t immediately get the connection, I just keep talking anyway. My rationale is this: that eventually, they will either hear me and understand, or years from now, when they are playing one of their favorite songs out of a music songbook, it will suddenly dawn on them . . . oh yea, that’s just a I, IV, V progression in the key of E Flat Major. Now I get it! And hopefully, they will think of me fondly. Either that or they’ll picture me as some hilarious caricature of myself that I can’t even imagine right now.

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