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14 minutes reading time (2774 words)

Dorothy Stolzenbach Payne: Remembering a legendary Cincinnati piano teacher

Dorothy Payne

Last year I stumbled upon a short book called Is There a Piano in the House? This book is about the life of Dorothy Payne, well-known teacher and pianist in the Cincinnati area. I was astonished to read about a teacher who specialized in group teaching and adult learning in the 1950s. This extraordinary woman was chosen Woman of the Year by the Cincinnati Enquirer, given an honorary doctorate by the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, and was the pianist for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, yet often taught 100 students. She entertained Tcherepnin, Grainger, and Vronsky and Babin, and invited them to Cincinnati for masterclasses.

I invited Rebecca Shockley, Professor Emerita of Piano Pedagogy and Coordinator of Class Piano at the University of Minnesota, to tell us more about the life of Dorothy Payne. I'm sure you will find their relationship somewhat astounding.

- Michelle Conda 

From age five until I entered Indiana University as a piano major, I was fortunate to study piano with Dorothy Stolzenbach Payne, one of the most sought-after teachers in Cincinnati. 

A renowned pianist, she was a longtime member of the Cincinnati Symphony and performed frequently in solo and chamber recitals, concerto performances, and as a church organist. She was friends with many distinguished musicians, including Percy Grainger, Vitya Vronsky and Victor Babin, Claudio Arrau, Eugene Goosens, Fritz Reiner, Max Rudolf, Harold Bauer, and Clifford Curzon. Mrs. Payne always had a waiting list of students, not only because she was an excellent teacher, but because her diverse studio included young prodigies, children of average ability, and a lot of adult amateurs. Many of her students went on to become professional musicians and music teachers, and nearly all acquired a love of music and the piano that lasted throughout their lives. She raised three children, all professional musicians. For me, it was a wonderful way of life. Dorothy Stolzenbach Payne was my mother.

Early years

Dorothy Stolzenbach was born in 1904 in Lima, Ohio. Al-though she could pick out tunes by ear at age two, her first three piano teachers dropped her because she could not read music. Her mother finally found a teacher who knew how to nurture her talent. She quickly learned to read music, and by high school she was playing frequent solos and accompanying daily chapel services and school musicals.

Dorothy Stolzenbach during high school.

Formal training and early career

At eighteen, Mother was offered a full scholarship to the Cincinnati College of Music to study with Dr. Albino Gorno, a fine Italian pianist who came to the United States as Adelina Patti's accompanist. He was very demanding, never gave praise, and would scream and throw things when angry. Nevertheless, she admired him greatly and learned a great deal. He stressed ensemble playing—chamber music, piano duos, and concertos. In her junior year she performed the first movement of the Tchaikovsky Concerto with the college orchestra, and in her senior year she became assistant pianist in the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra under Fritz Reiner.

After college

In 1926, she was hired to teach piano at the College of Music. In 1928, she received a Postgraduate Diploma with Distinction from the College, and that summer she married Karl Payne, a violinist she had met in college and had accompanied for several years.

From college to independent teacher 

In 1933, Dorothy resigned her college position and opened her own studio in downtown Cincinnati. Ignoring advice that she could never succeed on her own, she quickly filled the studio and had a long waiting list within weeks. Eventually she moved her studio to our large home, where she taught for thirty-five years.

Friendship with Percy Grainger

Dorothy Payne at her home with Percy and Ella Grainger, ca 1950

Although she absorbed many ideas from masterclasses with great pianists over the years, including Josef Lhévinne, Harold Baurer, Vronsky and Babin, and Rudolf Serkin, the person who was to have the greatest impact on her career, both as a performer and teacher, was undoubtedly Percy Granger. She had heard him perform in college and greatly admired his playing. In 1929 she took the train to Chicago to attend his masterclasses at Chicago Musical College. The two weeks spent studying with him truly changed her life. She came away brimming with new ideas about music and teaching, and he because a lifelong mentor, colleague, and friend. She attended further summer sessions with Grainger in Chicago, at New York University, and at Interlochen, and she was a frequent visitor to the Grainger home in White Plains, New York. She invited him to Cincinnati regularly for recitals and masterclasses, for which he and wife Ella stayed in our home. In 1943, he even stopped in Cincinnati on his way to performa Gershwin's Concerto in F with the Indianapolis Symphony so that he could rehearse with Mother playing the orchestra part.

Grainger's last visit to Cincinnati was in March 1958, when he and my mother gave a two-piano recital at the University of Cincinnati. The program featured works by Grainger, including his famous arrangement of "Porgy and Bess." He was already quite frail, but with her support he rose to the occasion, and the concert was a great success. They remained close friends until his death in 1961.

Two audio recordings made in preparation for 
a 1971 concert held in the Purcell Room in London under the sponsorship of the Grainger Library Society.

Dorothy Stolzenbach Payne plays Percy Grainger - One More Day, My John

Dorothy Stolzenbach Payne plays Percy Grainger - The Hunter in his Career

A letter from Percy Grainger to Dorothy Payne (1941)

Dorothy Payne as a teacher

Poster illustrating musical terms, ca. 1954

As a teacher, Mother was patient, kind, and encouraging, and she never turned down a student who really wanted to learn, regardless of ability level. She had a knack for finding the right piece for each student, and she could demonstrate any piece beautifully—or accompany a concerto at a moment's notice. When a student needed to talk, she was a sympathetic listener. She encouraged ensemble playing—duets, duo-piano, and piano quartets—and felt that all her students should have regular opportunities to perform for their peers. She experimented with classes and group instruction, often starting young beginners in groups of two or three, and offering regular classes for students taking individual lessons to enrich their curriculum.

She acquired some portable xylophones to enrich ensemble playing in her classes, and she often used teaching aids, such as a small merry-go-round showing the twenty-four major and minor keys in a circle. When students mastered a scale, they got to hang their name on the hook for that scale.

She commissioned a local artist to design some posters illustrating musical terms such as staccato, fortissimo, etc. In 1954 these were adopted by the Cincinnati Board of Education for use in public school music classes.

Inviting guest artists such as Grainger or Vronsky and Babin to give masterclasses was an important aspect of her teaching. In 1954, she invited Alexander Tcherepnin to come and give a masterclass on contemporary music for her students. He stayed in our home for three days, observed some lessons, and wrote a beautiful letter describing what he felt made her teaching so special: "This climate of love for music, this deeply human approach to it...that you communicate to your students."

Vronsky & Babin class in Aspen, 1956. Back row: Dorothy K. Payne, far left, and Dorothy S. Payne, third from left.

I came to Cincinnati in 1972 to intern with Mrs. Payne as a private teacher. I was an inexperienced, unknown, twenty-two-year-old graduate student, but she made me feel completely welcome.

I spent several days watching her teach, and it changed my whole view of teaching. Even though she taught more than one hundred students, she always greeted each student with a personal question or observation, such as "How's the new puppy?" or "Isn't that a new hair style?"

She opened doors to me that I couldn't have imagined, such as having lunch with Gina Bachauer, and masterclasses with Vronsky and Babin. She was a true artist, who was extremely generous with her time and talent, and her influence will carry on through my teaching.

Terry Granick

Balancing performing and teaching

Mother loved to perform, and she maintained a full schedule of performances despite her heavy teaching load. She especially enjoyed ensemble playing and would probably have become a professional accompanist if that career had been open to women in those days. She performed regularly for her music clubs, served as organist at several churches, and received numerous awards, including an Honorary Doctorate from the College-Conservatory of Music in 1967 and the Cincinnati Enquirer's "Woman of the Year" Award in 1979.

When I memorized ten pieces I would win a miniature glass animal or a statue of a composer, and I kept my collection for years! I loved being in her home—there was always a cat to play with and a candy bar after the lesson

- DeeDee Uhle
Dorothy Payne demonstrating Merry-Go-Round to students, ca. 1955.

The Keyboard Club

Summer Camp for Keyboarders, 1959.

One of Mother's most lasting achievements was the formation of the Keyboard Club in 1935. The club is still active and celebrated its seventy-fifth anniversary with a gala concert in 2010. She followed this with a Junior Keyboard Club for junior high and high school students. Both groups met monthly, with members performing and giving papers on musical topics.

In 1940, the Keyboard Club established a scholarship fund for deserving high school students to attend summer programs at universities. Other activities included providing free piano lessons to children who could not afford them, and purchasing tickets to the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra series for members to use.

In 1959, Mother decided to organize a two-week "summer camp" for Keyboarders to play quartets together. Twenty-four pianists, ranging in age from forty to seventy, set off for two weeks in northern Michigan, staying in the lakeside summer homes of two members. After morning ensemble practice, groups took turns preparing lunch, and the afternoon included a discussion of performance practice followed by more sight-reading until 6 p.m., when the group broke for dinner.

In 1963, the Keyboard Club sponsored a Musical Tour of Homes to raise money for scholarships, and, in 1969, they brought the renowned two-piano team of Vronsky and Babin to Cincinnati for a concert and a series of master classes. Mother had developed a close friendship with the Babins since 1956, when she and my older sister, Dorothy K. Payne, coached with them at the Aspen Music Festival. The concert raised a lot of money for scholarships, so it was decided to turn the fund over to the Greater Cincinnati Foundation, which now manages the Dorothy S. Payne Scholarship Fund.

The impact of the Keyboard Club on generations of piano students and teachers over the years is enormous. It not only encourages and supports pianists of all ages and ability levels, but it also promotes lifelong friendships among members—especially among her adult students. Because of the welcoming environment, many members meet their closest friends through the club.

In 1967, my father died of cancer, leaving her alone in the house. Since none of us lived nearby, she found some music students to stay in the house rent-free and help with chores. Some of her advanced students also gave piano lessons in the upstairs studios, so the house was not empty. In 1980, she moved with two grand pianos into a smaller house nearby, and continued teaching there until age eighty-five, when she moved into an assisted living facility. She died in December 1992, at the age of eighty-eight.

Her lasting legacy

Dorothy and Karl Payne, ca. 1955

What made Mother so successful? I think it was a combination of many factors: her innate talent and love of music; her mother's perseverance in finding the right teacher; her love of people and of teaching; her ongoing performance and study with great teachers, whose ideas she incorporated so effectively into her own teaching; the loving support of her husband throughout her career; and a deep faith and positive outlook, which enabled her to see the best in everyone she worked with and to overcome obstacles. She radiated those qualities to everyone around her, and her legacy lives on today.

Teaching tips from Is there a Piano in the House?


The best possible way to improve one's reading is by playing in groups. Start with fairly easy music, set a comfortable tempo, and stay with it. The most important rule is to keep moving. [Have] a guide or referee point to the place where the player should be and whisper fiercely, "Go on—one-two-three—catch it on one of the next measures." 


At the top of the list of things that won't work for getting children to practice are the following: Father saying emotionally, "But Alice, I never had the chance to study piano as a child. We've worked so hard and now can give you opportunities we didn't have. How can you be so indifferent?" or "Eddie, if I let you stop your lessons now you will regret it all your life. Someday you will reproach me for not making you go on." or "If Ella can find time to practice and play so well, why can't you?" or "When we bought the piano you were so thrilled and practiced so much. If you don't do better, we'll just sell the piano."

Most children are not remotely interested in regrets that might assail them twenty years later. Though they love their parents, they are usually quite disinterested in hardships their parents may have endured earlier. They are realistic. Today their parents have a nice home, good cars, spend money for many things. It surely isn't breaking them up to pay for music lessons, so why worry?

These aren't little monsters; they are children and we shouldn't expect them to behave like adults.

  1. Encourage your child to practice by listening to him.
  2. If you are busy in another part of the house, comment from afar.
  3. If possible, have a regular practice time set up.
  4. Keep the piano in tune.
  5. Choose the music teacher with care. A good teacher should love children, be able to interest them in music, be a good performer, have an attractive personality, and be devoted to music.
  6. If your child wants to experiment at the piano, let him do it.
  7. All practicing need not be done at one time.
  8. Ask the teacher to write assignments in a notebook.
  9. Occasionally, with the teacher's permission, sit in on a lesson.
  10. Practice is work that can help develop a healthy attitude and satisfaction in overcoming difficulties.

Three generations of the Payne Family. Photo taken in 1946.

Is There a Piano in the House?—The Life Story and Thoughts of Dorothy Stolzenbach Payne was compiled by club member Virginia McNeil from journal entries and oral interviews with Dorothy Payne. It was published by the Keyboard Club for its fiftieth anniversary in 1985 and re-issued for the seventy-fifth anniversary. For information about obtaining a copy, contact Rebecca Shockley at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Dorothy Payne's article "Bringing Delight to Music Study" can be found in the April 1947 issue of Etude magazine.

Materials about Dorothy Payne's life are housed in the Archives & Rare Books Library at the University of Cincinnati. Access to the collection is expected by June 2015.

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