Recital honors late piano teacher Sue Garnhart

Published Mar 5, 2014 at 4:40 pm (Updated Mar 6, 2014 at 2:40 pm)

It is impossible to gauge the number of lives Sue Garnhart has touched through music. For 46 years, she taught piano to school-age students and some adults, right up until the week before her death last April at 73.

To honor Garnhart, the Greater Pittsburgh Chapter of the Pennsylvania Music Teachers Association, of which she was an active member and past president, has organized a recital. It will be held at 3 p.m. March 16 at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Upper St. Clair. Members of PMTA will perform, along with members of the Pittsburgh Piano Teachers Association – where Garnhart was also an active member and past president – her sons, Geff and Sean, and three of her former students.

“She would be thrilled. Thrilled because of what it's saying about the importance of music everywhere, and in this community,” said her husband, Ned Garnhart.

Organizing the recital are Deb Busche, current president of the Greater Pittsburgh Chapter of PMTA, and Ellen Johnson, who is also a member of the organization.

“Sue was one of the first piano teachers I met when we moved to Pittsburgh in 1992. She welcomed me, and became my friend,” said Johnson. “I think her first love was teaching the kids. She knew how to encourage them to share their music with others by excelling in their practice and striving for their best performance. Her demeanor with her students was a model for others.”

Johnson said that each spring, she and Garnhart were involved in a piano festival in which most of their students were entered. The festival, she said, was not a competition, but a chance for the kids to be adjudicated based on how well they performed. “Sue was teaching students into March of 2013, not willing to give up on the kids she had entered in the festival,” recalled Johnson.

When Busche moved back to Peters Township 18 years ago, it was Garnhart who helped and encouraged her as she started her piano studio. “Sue was well-known for reaching out to piano teachers new to the area and getting them involved in the organizations, and helping them get their studios going,” said Busche. “She could give constructive criticism in a way that you knew she was telling you what you needed to hear because she cared about you and was interested in you.”

Garnhart began taking lessons at a young age. She and her mother would drive to Mt. Washington in the family's Model T Ford before finding a teacher closer to their Mt. Lebanon home.

When Garnhart went off to Westminster College to pursue a degree in elementary education, she continued to make music an active part of her life as a member of the choir and by accompanying a voice major all throughout college.

After graduation, Garnhart taught sixth grade at Jefferson Elementary School in Mt. Lebanon then married Ned, her high school sweetheart, in 1964. Soon after, their sons were born – Geff in 1967 and Sean in 1970. It was then that Garnhart made the difficult decision to quit teaching and be a stay-at-home mom. “She was very dedicated and it killed her to stop in the middle of the year and leave those kids, but she really wanted to see her own children learn to walk and grow up,” said Ned Garnhart.

But, Garnhart didn't stay away from teaching for long. Soon, she was persuaded to teach piano from her home. “The first person who asked her to teach was a mother with twin daughters. She came to Sue early on, but Sue explained that she had a baby now and couldn't,” recalled Ned Garnhart. “The mother wouldn't take no for an answer and said 'yes you can, you can work it out.” Within months, the girls became her first students. “Sue wanted to be a stay-at-home mom, so this was the perfect answer. She was able to be there when the boys came home from school and be there when they needed her. It was the best of both worlds.”

“My mother was an amazing listener who always made me feel important and special,” remarked Sean Garnhart, adding that her gift of being a good listener came through in not just her parenting, but in her teaching as well. “It allowed her to be sensitive to her sons' and students' individual needs.

“My mom loved her teaching and was always very excited to grow as a teacher,” he said.

Geff Garnhart echoed his brothers sentiments. “My mom was the kind of teacher that reveled in her children's and students' growth. She dedicated her life to teaching. It was so much more about her students than about her,” he said.

“One of the greatest attributes about both her and my dad, also a teacher, was/is fostering growth and lasting friendships with their students and colleagues. That's what makes this recital great,” added Geff Garnhart.

Sue Garnhart even had the pleasure of instructing, albeit unconventionally, a grandchild who lives out of state and had been taking lessons but not progressing as quickly as her parents had hoped. For nearly a year, the two had weekly lessons over the Internet, via iChat. “It was really neat and my granddaughter improved. They had a wonderful time together and it was great for Sue as a grandmother to experience that.”

When the Garnharts moved to Friendship Village, the lessons continued. “It was awesome, because she had always taught in our home and Friendship Village encouraged both of us to go on with teaching and allowed students to come here. It's only three miles from the front door of our old house to here, so things didn't change much for the kids,” said Ned Garnhart.

Ned Garnhart is grateful that his wife was able to continue to do what she loved up until the end. “The week before she passed, she was on oxygen and struggling a little but not terribly. It was wonderful to me that she was able to be teaching that close to when she passed on because she was herself when she was teaching. ”

Both Sean and Geff Garnhart are proud to be a part of the recital that will honor their mother.

“I am grateful to the PMTA for recognizing my mother's dedication while she was still living and for continuing to honor her love of music education with this recital,” said Sean Garnhart.

Geff added, “This recital was unexpected and is such a loving gesture; it speaks to the kind of warmth and care that she put forth toward others. Even before a note is played, it's a beautiful demonstration of love being shared.”

The recital to honor the memory of Sue Garnhart will begin at 3 p.m. March 16 at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Upper St. Clair. A reception will follow the performances. All former students and friends are encouraged to attend. For more information, call 724-941-6064 or email debusche@verizon.net.

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