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.

For the love of music

Part 3 of the piano bits

So how in the world did I get here? I now have ten students. Half of them piano students, the other half voice students. And me, a music teacher with no music degree.

the choir I currently sing with

If you’ve been reading my previous posts, you know that I began playing the piano when I was about 6. I took classical piano lessons most of my childhood.

And I’ve been singing for longer than that. In fact, I think I’ve heard my mother retell a story in which she claims she never heard a peep out of me as a toddler until she heard me one day singing “Over the Rainbow.” This might be one of those stories that is more myth than truth, but it sure sounds good doesn’t it? And if you know me, you are not surprised by the tale, tall though it may be.

I think my first singing role was in Hansel and Gretel at the age of 4 or 5 when my older sister and I shared the role of Gretel–she played it one night and I played it the other. I was bitten hard by the theatre bug and pursued roles throughout my youth. Hal McCuen was the director of that children’s theatre project in Mansfield, Ohio. He was a driven thespian who inspired me and many others in more than one generation in that little burg, and I am grateful for having been one of his protege.

 My first choir experience was in the junior choir at my church when I was in fourth grade. There, I learned that I am an alto and that I could sing harmony when most kids were too young to carry a tune while someone else sang something different right beside them. My sister and I held up the alto section together, in fact. There were probably twenty other kids singing soprano, and me and Sally and one other girl singing harmony . . . and being heard, mind you.

Our director for that little church choir of prepubescent was really fabulous. She was a very attentive and patient teacher, and an excellent director who could squeeze amazing subtlety out of a bunch of very young voices. I credit her with my being bitten by the choir bug and having spent the last thirty years participating in community choirs, symphony choruses, church choirs, and in choir leadership all my life. Mrs. Ransdell, I tip my glass to you, dear lady.

In high school I tried out for parts in practically every play our school put on. I played Abigail in The Crucible, the maid in The Miracle Worker, Snoopy in You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown, and other roles I can barely now recall. I thank Bill Asher for generously casting me in things that gave me an opportunity to try to act and to sing. Bill was a bombastic thespian: every word he ever spoke and every move he ever made was played for the deaf audience member in the back row of the theatre. Bill helped me figure out that I might be more than just a ham, and that gave me the crazy idea that I might pursue theatre in college.

So off I went to college, spending two years pursuing a theatre degree doing mostly musical theatre. Kept singing, got some voice lessons, and got stronger. But I slowly began to see that a theatre degree was not the most practical route to take in college, so I switched to English.

Then in my third year, I met a merry little band of folks who I thankfully still count as my dear friends today. And this is when my musical education was renewed.

I was living with my girlfriend Cindy when, one day, two people came knocking on our door looking for her. She had met Jim and Kathy at the local diner where they discovered they might have some mutual musical interests. Specifically, they wanted to recruit us to come sing some choral music with them. Jim was the Music Director at the local Unitarian Universalist fellowship. He sang bass, Kathy sang soprano. My voice was low enough to sing tenor, my girlfriend sang alto. Together we began working on Byrd’s Ave Verum Corpus, Bach’s chorales, Victoria’s O Magnum Mysterium. We became inseparable friends and collaborators. I learned so much from singing in a small intimate quartet. Being able to work more intensely with each other on our sound, being sensitive to one another, listening to each other, working hard to blend—there isn’t one of us who wouldn’t tell you that it was a magical time in our lives and that we have not captured the same feeling singing with anyone or any group since.

Besides those glorious years expanding my classical singing repertoire, my friendship with Jim gave me the gift I had wanted as a child and been discouraged from pursuing. That gift—playing the organ. I had expressed interest in playing the organ to my piano teacher as I was growing up and her response had been, “You don’t want to learn that thing. Nobody plays that anymore.” Unfortunately, I never mentioned it to my mother or anyone else at that time.

But I had always loved listening to the pipe organ at church and now I had a dear friend who played it beautifully and loved it. Jim helped me wrap my mind around teaching myself to play the organ and, with his guidance and encouragement, I dove in with both feet, literally. I’ve never thought of myself as anything more than a “hack” at the organ since I am mostly self-taught, but I learned to play well enough to land the Music Director’s job in Florida, so I guess I did okay. Furthermore, being able to play music with both your hands and your feet at the same time is probably the coolest thing ever. Thank you, Jim. You inspired me then and I am happy to still call you friend.

Those years spent playing and singing with close friends at the Unitarian Universalist fellowship in Kent, Ohio set the stage for the next 30 years of singing in choirs, playing in churches, directing choirs, singing in a jazz ensemble, playing in a folk group, and teaching other people piano and voice in the hopes of passing on the love of making music to others.

So when potential students or students’ parents ask me what qualifies me to teach, I tell them, “a lifetime of playing piano and singing and a belief that being able to make music is the most valuable, spiritual, and inspiring gift you can give to yourself or your kids.”

I am blessed to be able to have a hand in that process in anyone’s life. And I am incredibly grateful for the teachers I have had all through the years that helped me improve my techniques, inspired me, and helped me foster, cherish, and never forget the gift of music in my own life.