Pop culture has its Piano Man in Billy Joel, but Altoona proudly has its Piano Lady in Barbara Weller Crain.
At 84 years young, Crain continues to teach and inspire budding pianists and be a delightful cheerleader for the Altoona Symphony Orchestra.
The Altoona native’s music career began when she was just six years old.
“My father started me on violin, and he switched me to viola at age 12, and I never looked back,” she stated.
Crain graduated from Altoona Area High School and the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester.
Her mastery of the viola resulted in a 62 year career with the Altoona Symphony Orchestra. She retired about three years ago after a tear in her rotator cuff.
“It just got to be too much,” she said. “It was painful to play.”
Looking back at those more than six decades, Crain said it is impossible to choose just one or two special memories.
“The Altoona Symphony is just very precious to me,” she stressed, recalling a love affair that started when she used to tag along with her father. He was one of the original members of the Gerhart String Ensemble, which then grew into the full Altoona Symphony Orchestra.
Over the years, the ASO conductors got better and better, Crain continued. She is especially proud of the current conductor, Teresa Cheung.
“She is just fantastic to work with – a top-notch conductor,” observed Crain. “She respects the musicians, but she is very demanding. She knows what she wants, she works the heck out of you, and she is just so professional in her handling of the orchestra.”
And, of course, Cheung has the audience “eating out of her hand,” Crain added, referring to the maestra’s contagious passion for classical music and engagement of others.
Despite her years of accomplished viola playing, Crain is quick to remind that her prime instrument is the piano.
Using that talent, she sponsored piano concerts to benefit the Altoona Symphony Orchestra for many years.
“I don’t have money to give to the Symphony, so by doing that, I was able to raise thousands of dollars for them,” she said.
Sadly, arthritis has prevented her from continuing those benefit concerts.
The aches and pains, however, have not halted her piano teaching. She still offers private lessons and currently has what she considers some promising students.
“As long as I enjoy the children, I will teach,” she assured. “If I stop enjoying the children, I’m done.”
She also continues to play in her church orchestra and mentors the church music camp.
Not one to rest on her laurels, Crain has also taken up the harp in recent years.
Besides music, Crain has plenty of other interests, including reading and quilting. She was recently blessed with a new great granddaughter, and the animal lover thoroughly enjoys her two cats.
As Crain looks to the future, she believes the best is yet to come for the Altoona Symphony Orchestra.
“I am amazed when major symphonies all over the United States are struggling, and yet we have so many wonderful sponsors and people who back the Symphony in Altoona,” she commented. “I just see the Symphony getting better and better.”
In fact, Crain is optimistic for the entire local arts scene, pointing out the quality of Altoona Community Theatre and Blair Concert Chorale.
“How many cities this size have things like that? We are fortunate. We are blessed,” she added.
And Crain is humbled and honored to be a part of it all.
This Christmas season, she is truly a gift that keeps on giving to the arts community.