Music is her lifetime passion
By ERNEST HOOPER, Times Columnist
Published July 29, 2005


The song was a Roger Williams tune called Autumn Leaves, and Betty Toombs loved the way the melody emulated leaves falling from a tree.
Then 5, she listened to her older sister play the song, and she fell in love with music.
From those childhood roots, Toombs blossomed into a music educator and is now one of the best-known piano teachers in the Brandon area. She also is quite the performer, playing organ for Christ the Redeemer Lutheran Church in Temple Terrace after stints at St. James United Methodist in New Tampa and Apostles Lutheran in Brandon.
Over breakfast at the Brunchery, Betty talked about her lifetime love of music, the challenges of teaching and the annual Bach Festival held in Tampa each March.
Pull up a chair and join us.

ERNEST: Did you ever consider becoming a professional?
BETTY: I am a professional.

I mean, you know, did you ever consider being a concert performer?
Well, when I went to school, you could either go music education or concert performing. I was such a shy little girl I didn't think I wanted to do the performing thing and travel. I wanted to have a family. I wanted to be a church musician and a piano teacher, so I'm doing what I thought I would do.
When did you first realize you would have a music career?
Even when I was 9 and 10 I thought I would love to teach piano and play my whole life. But you don't really know you're going to make a career out of it until you're in college. Music is the one thing where you have to be very good at it to get into college. You have to have six or seven years of lessons to get into college. We have a lot more education than doctors, when you think about it (laughs). They might not want to think about it that way, but we do.

What's the biggest challenge of teaching piano?
Probably getting to know the students, each one individually, and deciding what the best course of action is for that person. They all learn differently. That's what's great about piano because traditionally it's one-on-one so you get to know the kids real well. You can keep track of what they know and don't know.

What do you do if a student hasn't practiced? I know you can tell.
Yes, I can. I always tell them in the interviews, If you haven't practiced, when you walk in the door let me know so I'll gear the lesson differently. We never have time to do everything we need to do, so at those times, I do a quick review of what they should be doing so they'll remember what to do. Hopefully, it'll inspire them to practice in the coming week.

So you don't rap them on the knuckles with a gold ruler?
No, that's something I think they appreciate about me. I never make them feel guilty because they feel guilty enough, usually. I just tell them, Maybe this week you'll be able to get to it. Sometimes it's the parents' fault. They don't allow time in the schedule for practice, but I wish they would practice five days a week.

You have two sons. Do they play?
I taught them, which is always kind of hard to do, teach your own kids. But both of them had their best friends taking lessons with them. So that's what worked for us. They each had about three years of lessons. They understand it. They're good musicians. They love music, but not playing the piano.

You also play organ for a church, but a lot of churches have gone with more contemporary songs and bands.
I think the main thing for any church is variety. You don't want to get stuck in a rut. Personally, I'm in the Lutheran church, which is very liturgical. But within the liturgy, you can do different things. You don't want it to be stale, so you try to do a variety of things every Sunday. Even with the hymns, you can do a lot. It doesn't have to sound the same. I think whenever people say they don't like organ music it's because they had a poor organist that wasn't very creative.

And I guess the annual Bach Festival is an indication people still love organ music. Tell me about it.
It's a big event we have here in Tampa every year in March. We usually do it on a Tuesday night, and we pack the churches. And it's all Bach music. We've had it for five years, and every year it's gotten bigger. The first year we thought maybe 50 or 60 people would come and we had 300. Now it's up to 700.

What's the best organ you've ever played?
At Holy Innocence in Valrico, that's a wonderful pipe organ. I play there sometimes. And downtown Tampa at Sacred Heart Catholic Church. At both of those places, I'm the substitute funeral organist for weekdays (laughs). As an organist, I'm always available during the day, and I can move my students around or not, play tennis on a certain day and get to the funeral.

You play tennis?
That's where I would normally be on a Saturday morning. Wednesday and Thursday I'm in a women's league, and we travel throughout the area. I do that to get out and get some exercise. There's a whole world of tennis players. Tennis is big in Brandon.

Do you act like John McEnroe and break your rackets?
Nooo. We're ladies on the tennis court, but you hit it at people, you know, if you want to win.

DESSERT: A postscript from Ernest
Betty, 53, is extremely good at sight reading and loves to get a new piece of music and attack it, much like kids who get a new video game. Speaking of video games, Betty uses computer programs to enhance her lessons. She also is the adjunct organ teacher at Blake High. Betty is an active member of the Music Teachers National Association and the Florida State Music Teachers Association, and she often serves as a judge for the state group's noncompetitive recitals each spring. She advises parents looking for a piano teacher to find someone with an educational background because teaching is different than playing.

Ernest Hooper also writes a column for the Tampa & State section of the St. Petersburg Times. Lunch With Ernest is edited for brevity and clarity.
To suggest lunch partners, call Ernest at 226-3406 or e-mail hooper@sptimes.com
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