A Musical Journey in Allegro


Judith Russo

After her husband Joe died, Joan Campbell delayed his memorial service for several months until the monument to honor the grave of her father where her mother’s ashes were interred in Doylestown Cemetery was ready.

Then, on a sunny, warm July day, she celebrated Joe’s life with piano students, friends and the Marines. As she interred Joe’s ashes in the grassy knoll of the grave, a bagpiper played Antonin Dvorak’s  “Going home” and the Marine’s Hymn.

“Doesn’t it make you feel strange?” a friend asked when he saw the monument.

The monument read, “The Chismars and Campbells Making Beautiful Music Together.”

“Not at all,” smiled Joan. “There’s one space left for my remains.”

Music has been the centerpiece of Joan’s life. It has seen her and her family through the extreme poverty of the great depression and Germany’s invasion of the central European countries from which they immigrated.

But music has also brought her strength, joy, love and learning.

“I never thought of doing anything else,” she says about her 75 years of teaching music. She told her adult student of 33 years, Jeff Buckwalter, an ENT surgeon, “No one can grow in this world without mentors.”

While many consider Joan to be a mentor, she herself has had mentors throughout her career.

She is a small but wiry woman, with a strong, beautifully modulated speaking voice and silver hair softly curling over her forehead. Bright eyes shine above her n95 mask. She sits erect on her living room couch in Doylestown, a room dominated by, of course, a Steinway grand piano that she’s had since she was 12.

“It’s a very good piano,” she says.

Now during Covid, she’s adapted her teaching style. She attaches her i-pad to a floor stand next to her piano and uses the facetime app.

She calls her students and by using their phones they hear and see each other. “I can see their pianos and their pets. It works,” she says, “but it’s not the same as sitting down next to someone on the piano bench.”

One can imagine her alert, engaged fully in the moment as she is now sitting beside her students and assisting them as they play.

“She deals with each student in their own learning way. Through this individual learning you grow your mind and continue to develop your cognitive abilities. To learn you have to have receptivity and dynamic transformation,” says Buckwalter.

Of Dr. Buckwalter, Joan observes, “He likes thinking about many things at one time: reading the music with the right finger numbers and keys to push, details about expression and the pedals.”

“We came up with at least eight things to think about when playing,” she remarks of her teachings.

Joan’s father was born in Puritan, Pennsylvania, a coal mining town, and he started working in the coal mines at the age of 12. After some time in Pennsylvania, the family moved to Canton, Ohio.

With central European cultures being heavily represented in Canton, he began to frequent many Hungarian dances filled with excitement.

It was at these dances and parties that he realized his true love, music.

So, as a child, with no money available, he actually made his own “violin” out of a cigar box and rubber bands.

It was in Canton that Joan’s mother and father would eventually meet.

Her mother attended business school at the age of 16 and became a typist and accountant.

“I can’t type,” says Joan awkwardly pushing on her ipad. “My mother always said I’ll do the typing; you practice the piano.”

Once her parents were married, her father took up violin lessons in hopes of playing in pit orchestras for silent movies. However, by the time he finished training, Hollywood had moved on from silent films altogether.

This would ultimately lead to her father gathering groups of musicians to play at events on weekends.

As an infant Joan sang or hummed before she talked. Matching notes with her father’s violin.

“When the notes are too high for her, she finds the exact same note an octave below,” her father boasted to her mother.

“There was always music in my house, either my father playing his violin or the radio or phonograph.” says Joan.

With her parents’ encouragement, she became a musical protege on demand to play for musical events throughout the city.

 Starting piano lessons at the age of 6, by 10 Joan was practicing three hours a day. Before school, at lunch and after school.

Joan lived in two worlds: school friends and friends from her music club. She enjoyed them both.

At the age of 10, she was playing for community events and teaching paper dolls propped atop the piano. “I would finish practicing and then teach them what I’d learned,” says Joan.

When she was 16, she graduated from teaching paper dolls to teaching piano to friends and neighbors.

”I didn’t know then what was wrong with my first student that didn’t make progress, but I know now,” she says. “She wasn’t practicing.”

Her longtime piano teacher, Florence Nusly, referred her to a Juilliard summer school eight week course where she studied with Joseph Raieff, whose own teacher had studied with Franz Liszt in Weimar, Germany.

He advised her that she had an excellent music school near her Ohio home, the Cleveland Institute of Music. So she studied there for five years with Arthur Loesser, who she considers her most important professional teacher. His half-brother was Frank Loesser, who wrote “Guys and Dolls.”

“There is so much to learn in studying music and in my own teaching. I love when I impart something to another person and they get it,” says Joan. “For instance, in learning to memorize and knowing the theory.”

“If you know that C tonic chord is CEG and GV7 is GBDF, then when you go from tonic to GV7 chord and back it feels like you went on a walk and you come back home to home plate that’s how Joan describes it and how she teaches,” explains Buckwalter.

“We explore the theory together and she takes joy in exploring the piece with me and discovering new things in how I learn it. I told her ‘this is written wrong’ about Chopin’s Album Leaf, and she said ‘you are right if Frederick Chopin were here I would tell him what he needs to change about this piece,’” he adds.

Joan attended graduate school at Bloomington, Indiana, and met her husband who was studying for an advanced degree in Eastern European Studies. They had the love of music and central European culture in common.

While finishing her master’s degree, she taught at the Settlement Music School in Cleveland.

After finishing her master’s degree in Bloomington, she spent one year as an Assistant Professor at Kansas Wesleyan University in Salina Kansas, and another at the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia, her husband’s hometown.

Shortly after her and her husband moved to Doylestown, Joan began teaching private students in 1964.

Later on, her parents moved nearby. Her father said the seven years he lived in Doylestown were the best years of his life.

She’s been living in her 1870 historical house in Doylestown borough and teaching students ever since.

One of her student’s mothers asked her 10 years ago if she is finding enough to keep herself busy.

Joan smiles, “Oh yes. I have a lot of students.”

“You do?!” was the mothers response.

Now, she can’t wait for Covid to end so that her students can “mingle and interact and play for each other.”

For any contact information, or anything else related to Joan, her webpage is joancampbellpiano.com – Piano Lessons – Doylestown, Pennsylvania