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Teaching music, changing lives


Students say farewell to piano teacher supreme Elizabeth Stern

by: REVIEW, TIDINGS PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Elizabeth Stern was a born piano teacher. She began giving lessons to World War II veterans in hospitals when she was just 13 years old.

Elizabeth Stern may be retiring as a full-time piano teacher, but she taught so many students over the course of her career that her legacy of music will go on and on.

About 60 of Stern’s former students and many of their parents gathered May 30 to pay tribute to a woman who so enriched their lives. The line they repeated over and over: “She changed our lives.”

“She was the shepherd. I was the lamb,” said Lauren Yoon, age 15, who was one of Stern’s last group of students. “She nurtured me into becoming the person I am today.”

“We are so grateful to have Elizabeth in our life,” said Rui Wang, whose daughter, Adria Ye, is now studying at the Juilliard School of Music and was one of Stern’s most outstanding students.

“I am forever grateful to Elizabeth,” said Erin Young, a concert pianist and teacher. “What she taught me still makes a difference in my life to this day.”

Marietta Harrison knows music. Her husband is well-known composer and pianist Michael Allen Harrison, and her daughter, Andrea Johnson, has just been accepted into the nation’s most prestigious piano pedagogy doctoral program, taught by Dr. Jane McGrath. For Harrison, Stern hung the moon.

“Elizabeth will remain an inspiration to my daughter as she continues to teach and pass on Elizabeth’s legacy,” she said.

As a piano teacher, Elizabeth Stern was soft spoken, but firm and demanding. She sometimes surprised her students by getting up and dancing or even rapping. As competitions approached, she gave her students a sense of perspective that eased their minds and helped them shine.

She inspired respect and devotion.

“Being in her presence created an instant urge to sit up straighter, think sharper and pay very close attention to what was being said,” Harrison said.

Still, Stern has one weakness. She tends to cringe in the face of praise, which she received in a tidal wave at her retirement celebration. She prefers to steer the credit toward her students and their parents, and to her husband, Joe, for putting up with so many students in their home over the years.

“This is a tribute not to me, but to the parents who made the financial sacrifice and gave a lot of their time,” Stern said. But teaching the piano to so many eager young people, she admits, has been a wonderful life.

Stern didn’t play the piano before she could walk, but she came pretty close. She started taking lessons when she was just 3 years old, and she immediately discovered what she wanted to do in life. She didn’t have grand visions of being a famous concert pianist, but she loved playing. And from the very start, she knew she wanted to teach others to play, too.

“I never had the desire to perform. But whenever I had free time, I would go play the piano,” Stern said. “I was always drawn to it.”

She began her teaching career at age 13, giving lessons at the Red Cross, to World War II veterans in hospitals and to girls in the Girls Club. She continued teaching while working on her undergraduate and graduate degrees at Stanford University and the University of Southern California, but went on a long hiatus when she married Joe and raised their two children.

During that time, Stern taught English in the United States and Great Britain, but she never lost her desire to be a piano teacher, and she went back to full-time piano teaching in 1976 while living in Texas. To do it, she gave up a high-salary job with a country club.

“The money was not worth it,” Stern said. “Life has been wonderful ever since.”

Luckily for Lake Oswego, Stern moved here in 1990, and her living room, with her grand piano, has been a place where hundreds of young folks have learned to play. Her reputation quickly spread, and parents felt very lucky indeed if they were able to send their child to Stern for lessons.

“I heard there were two great teachers in Lake Oswego, and one of them was Elizabeth Stern,” said Esther Yoon, whose daughter, Lauren, is already well on her way to an outstanding career. “We used to go to recitals by Andrea Johnson, and although Lauren was only 5½, we were praying Lauren could study with them. Andrea opened a door for Lauren to audition for Elizabeth, and it was a dream come true.”

Over the past quarter century, Stern has produced many great young pianists, including Andrea Johnson, Adria Ye and Lauren Yoon. Only just a few weeks ago, three of Stern’s students won championships in a competition sponsored by the Oregon Music Teachers Association.

Stern doesn’t mind bragging a bit about her young phenoms, but she takes great satisfaction in all of her students.

“I appreciate the efforts of all my students,” Stern said. “I love music, and when they make the effort, that’s enough for me. I just want to impart the love of music. It’s a shame when that love of music is turned into a competitive sport.”

“Elizabeth was a counselor, not only in music but in life,” Esther Yoon said. “A lot of teachers only want their kids to win competitions. That is not her thing.”

Still, there comes a time when even a great teacher has to give up what she loves. Stern was teaching five nights and seven days a week, and she had 20 students. So, at age 81, Stern is taking husband Joe and her grand piano to a retirement community in Beaverton. She will still be giving a few lessons, but for the most part, she is saying farewell to teaching.

She will be greatly missed.

“The thing that was fascinating about Elizabeth was that she used no lesson books for any of her studies, but rather she hand-drew each and every scale, arpeggio, sight reading and finger exercise for each and every student,” Harrison said. “Looking back, this was part of the love that she shared.”

How great a teacher was Elizabeth Stern? Rui Wang might have the best answer.

“After Adria’s first lesson with Elizabeth, she was so excited,” Wang said. “She said, ‘This is better than eating dark chocolate.’ Adria loves chocolate, so that says a lot!”