by Jane Lenel
Elsie Storck’s piano-teaching life has been full to overflowing. In New Rochelle, N.Y., where she lived until 1978, her schedule was so tight that some students had to arrange their school lunch times and study periods to fit in lessons. (She currently lives in the Cathedral Village retirement community in upper Roxborough.)
There, combined with her work turning out skilled musicians and future professionals, she was also a judge in local and state auditions — a good “show off” method, she smiled during a recent interview, for students who won gold certificates.
In Copake, N.Y., a village graced by one general store, one drug store, a saloon and a church, where she and her husband Ed retired, they had to enlarge their small cottage to fit in Elsie’s piano and to accommodate her students — some driving as many as 20 miles for lessons — and musical events.
Along with teaching, somewhere in her days or nights, she found time to feed her own love of playing. “In New York I did lots of accompanying,” she said, primarily with singers — soloists and groups such as the Gotham Chorale.
One particular “high moment,” she recalled, was a performance in White Plains of the Bach B Minor Mass in which she accompanied the Schola Cantorum, a chorus of about 200 singers and an audience of 2,500.
Now at age 98 at Cathedral Village, having supplied more than the average quota of outstanding pianists over the years, Elsie has spent the last several years filling the demand for an accompanist for singers, instrumentalists and choral groups. And a few years ago performed as a soloist at Cathedral Village and was interviewed for an ABC TV documentary. “All that has kept me busy,” she said.
Unduly modest, her explanation for her earlier student popularity is: “I never rapped their knuckles.” However, despite this kindly approach, there is no question that she believes piano lessons aren’t child’s play and that studying piano is serious business.
This attitude is repeated in the “Why We Teach Music” document that hangs by her front door stressing the value of music as an art, vital to helping to create a good life.
“I believe every child should be able to play an instrument,” Elsie said, citing the fact that students who play in school bands or orchestras tend to excel academically. Along with the discipline it gives, she noted that “They have no time to get into trouble.”
“I didn’t use a particular method,” she explained. “Every child is different.” However, she added that “there are certain fundamentals that must be learned and practiced,” and she did use various method books. But the one she used most was “The Language of the Piano,” by Dorothy Priesing and Libbie Tecklin, a theory and practice workbook for intermediate students with illustrations by well-known composers.
One of Elsie’s former students, Pat Gubler, who has recorded under the solo name P.G. Six and within the loose-knit group The Tower Recordings, had this to say about Elsie: “She was a really great teacher and a very serious player … She was also very nice and laid-back in her approach and very encouraging. I think she saw that while I didn’t have, like, massive technique, I did have a bit of a feel for it. When I was finishing high school, she said, ‘Well, are you thinking of going to college? Maybe you could study some music, among other things.’ That sort of affirmed it for me, that music was something I could pursue further.”
To arrive at her own keyboard mastery, Elsie, too, had to undergo the rigors of study. Her mother gave her the first lesson when she was five. She then studied with a local teacher, followed by one requiring a commute alone on a train in New York City when she was 12. She was admitted to the prestigious Juilliard School of Music when she was 16.
After graduating from Juilliard in 1935, she went to Columbia Teachers College for pedagogy courses, and then, believing that “teachers should never stop studying,” she took courses at New York University covering all periods of the history of music.
Along the way, she became interested in the organ, took lessons and became a substitute organist at Temple Israel Reformed Synagogue in New Rochelle. There she played for weddings and funerals, and she remembers her terror when, after only six lessons, she had to play for an entire service. She also taught at Columbia County Community College. Elsie has two children: John, an international banker who also taught at Boston University and lives on North Haven Island off the coast of Maine; and Susan, a retired school teacher and pianist-conductor who lives in Ann Harbor, Michigan.
Looking back at her own childhood, Elsie says she is grateful for having lived in a family that loved music and the arts and set the stage for her future life. Looking at her present life, she said she is grateful for the opportunity to live with a similarly arts-oriented “family” of residents at Cathedral Village who follow her instructions to practice scales and arpeggios daily.