Longtime piano instructor now learning to play the harp

When Barbara Weller Crain plays the piano, she tries to get into the composer’s mind.

“You have to make people hear the words of what you play,” she said with conviction. “You just don’t play da-de-da.”

The 79-year-old Altoona native has had a lot of years to put that philosophy to use. She started playing piano when she was 4 years old and never stopped. She started giving piano lessons when she was 12, and she still does to six children and six adults.

And Crain is a longtime member of the Altoona Symphony Orchestra, joining in 1946 as a viola player, the instrument she still plays in that group.

Beauty in life is important, Crain said, and part of that beauty is music.

While Crain retired from Verizon after 37 years – a job she said she held to pay the bills – she has never retired from music.

“I’ll teach as long as I enjoy my students,” she said.

And she, herself, remains a music student.

“I have taken up this monstrosity,” she said, pointing toward the edge of her living room to a 5-foot harp she acquired about four years ago.

“It’s hard,” she said. “But I like it.”

Her instructor, 92-year-old harpist Mary Lauver, 92, of Hollidaysburg, said she enjoys teaching Crain.

“She’s bound and determined she’s going to learn, and we have fun,” Lauver said.

While Crain’s musical knowledge and talent is a plus, Lauver said their lessons focus on technique.

“She told me she used to watch me play the harp with the symphony and always thought she’d learn to play someday,” Lauver said.

Crain’s early interest in music developed with the encouragement of her father, Harold Weller. He was a longtime viola player for the Altoona Symphony Orchestra and its forerunner, the Gearhart String Ensemble. When Harold Weller died in 1963 of a stroke at age 61, he was referred to in the Altoona Mirror as one of the symphony’s most dedicated members.

Violet Whiting, president of the symphony board of directors, has similar praise for Crain.

“She has always been a vital and integral part of the symphony, and so supportive,” Whiting said. “She’s been doing an annual benefit for the symphony for quite a few years. It’s very generous of her, and she donates all the proceeds back to us.”

Crain said this year’s benefit, scheduled for April 14, is called “Ivories and Strings.” She’ll play piano, accompanied by the Allegro String Quartet, and together, they’ll bring the music of Mozart, Beethoven and Vivaldi to life.

“The focus that day will be on Barbara,” quartet member Jennifer Wright said. “She’s a wonderful performer, a wonderful person and quite an asset to the Altoona community.”

Crain enjoys providing church music too, currently at the Wehnwood United Methodist Church, where she teaches an adult Sunday school class.

In addition to music, Crain cares for four cats and one dog, and she has a long list of hobbies that keep her life interesting.

“I love murder mysteries,” she said while sitting in a chair surrounded by books within an easy reach.

“And I’m a Sudoku nut,” she said, referring to the number puzzle game that’s grown in popularity within the last decade.

She also knits and has a half-finished project on the footstool in front of her chair. On the back of her couch is a neatly folded quilt she made.

“She really is a lifelong learner,” Wright said. “To me, she’s just amazing.”

“There’s only 23 channels on my TV,” Crain said. “And very rarely is the television on.”

Crain has one son, Carlton, a physician’s assistant in North Carolina, and four grandchildren. Their pictures decorate the walls and shelves of her Wehnwood home, along with a variety of musical-themed gifts she has received over the years from her students.

Crain said that she probably had as many as 28 to 30 piano students at one time. But that would have been while she was working for Verizon, before retiring 20-some years ago, she said, declining to recall the specific year.

“Now that I look back, I don’t know how I had time to work,” she said.