Music Professor Has Taught Piano at NEIU for 50 Years and Counting

By Justin Breen on July 2, 2013 6:41am 

EDGEBROOK — Elyse Mach's life has played out like a perfect piano melody.

The music professor just finished her 50th year of teaching — all at Northeastern Illinois University. In those five decades of instruction, Mach estimated she has taught more than 9,000 students the art of playing piano.

Some of them have stood out. Her fifth-grade teacher at O.A. Thorp Academy, June Waligura, eventually became Mach's pupil. When Waligura died three years ago, she left Mach several jewelry pieces, including a green-stoned diamond ring that Mach wears most days.

A jazz musician named Carl Fields came to Mach and NEIU when he was 70 years old because he didn't know how to read music. The longtime Edgebrook resident helped him become a graduate when he was 74.

And then there was Linda Winer, one of Mach's first students at NEIU and now the Theater Critic and Arts Columnist for Newsday in New York City.

"I have nothing but good feelings about my education at Northeastern, and she was a very big part of it," said Winer, a Von Steuben High School grad and current Upper East Side resident. "She was supportive and smart and rigorous, and I enjoyed every minute I was with her."

Mach's 50th year at Northeastern was her last at full time, but she plans to still teach eight hours of Class Piano each week in the fall.

As Mach (her last name appropriately rhymes with Bach) noted, she does not comprehend the words "retirement" and "bored."

"There's so many things to do yet, and so little time," said Mach, who didn't wish to reveal her age.

"I like to keep people guessing," she said.

Born to play the piano

Mach was born an only child to Theodore, a mechanical engineer, and Minna, a housewife. Her parents both loved music.

Her first piano was a toy black one she received as a gift as a 3-year-old.

"I played it incessantly," she said.

When Mach was 7, her friends learned piano from instructor Ascan Kittner, a German who gave Hershey chocolate bars to his students after each session.

 Elyse Mach, who has been a music instructor at Northeastern Illinois University for 50 years, was on the cover of the May 6, 1962,  Chicago Tribune Magazine  for a story about learning how to play the piano.
Elyse Mach, who has been a music instructor at Northeastern Illinois University for 50 years, was on the cover of the May 6, 1962, Chicago Tribune Magazine for a story about learning how to play the piano.
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Elyse Mach

"I wanted a chocolate bar, too," said Mach, whose father bought her a spinet piano soon after.

Mach's career blossomed. She was named Most Outstanding Senior at Steinmetz High School, in part because of her piano expertise. While she majored in music at Valparaiso University, she had a solo performing career and toured the United States and Europe.

By age 22, she was working on a pair of doctorates — in piano performance and music education — at Northwestern University in Evanston. She also began writing the first edition of "Contemporary Class Piano," which remains one of the best-selling piano instructional books in the country.

"I wanted to make sure I had done enough things so I could be a teacher," said Mach, who is currently scribing the book's eighth edition. She was so well known as an instructor that before she came to Northeastern, Chicago Tribune Magazine featured her in a May 6, 1962, cover story about learning how to play the piano.

Mach arrived at Northeastern in 1963, when the school was known as Chicago Teachers College (North Side). As the school's name changed to Illinois Teachers' College: Chicago North, then Northeastern Illinois State College, and finally Northeastern Illinois University in 1971, Mach was one of the few constants.

"I decided to teach there because it was a newer university, and it was in the area," Mach said. "I had opportunities to leave, but the school has been like a second home."

Connected to a piano rock star

The university's music department chair, Shayne Cofer, has been at NEIU for 15 years. When Cofer became a faculty member, he brought with him a second edition copy of "Contemporary Class Piano," which he used in 1978 as a freshman at the University of Idaho.

"When I was putting that book on my shelf, I realized, 'Oh she works here', so that was kind of ironic," said Cofer, of Lakeview. "That just kind of shows the influence of her writing and her piano book."

Mach's influence has always been the incomparable Hungarian composer Franz Liszt, who was a rock star of the 19th century. Mach called Liszt her "hero," and one of her most prized possessions is a handwritten letter by Liszt to his son-in-law that she keeps in a safe place. In 2010, Mach was awarded the Silver Medal from the American Liszt Society, which promotes the historical significance of Liszt throughout the Western World. A highlight of Mach's life was having Liszt's great granddaughter, Blandine Ollivier de Prevaux, stay with her while Mach lived in Edgewater in 1974.

"She is in a small group of people who connect to one of the greatest pianists who ever lived," said the youngest of Mach's three sons, Andrew Peirick, 35, of Jefferson Park. "She doesn't put herself in that category, but I would put her in that category."

Peirick said piano always played a part in the childhood of him and his two older brothers, Sean and Aaron. He described a recurring scene in which he or his siblings would hit a key on the family's Steinway Grand Piano while Mach washed dishes in the kitchen three rooms away.

"She knew exactly what key and note they were, and then she kept doing the dishes," he said. "I've never seen anyone enjoy what they do in their career more than my mom with her piano-teaching career."

Peirick doesn't think his mom will ever retire. Cofer said Mach can stay at NEIU as long as she likes because "she's really active and just does the job well, so there's no reason to make a change."

 Elyse Mach sits in the backyard of her Edgebrook home. Mach has been a music instructor at Northeastern Illinois University for the past 50 years.
Elyse Mach sits in the backyard of her Edgebrook home. Mach has been a music instructor at Northeastern Illinois University for the past 50 years.
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DNAinfo/Justin Breen

Mach's biggest concern is finding the time to pursue all her interests. She owns three dogs. Two are Cali and Shea, collies who are children of Mason, who starred in the the 2005 feature film "Lassie." The other is 13-year-old Guenther, whom she bought at St. Francis Animal Shelter in Kenosha, Wis. — where she volunteers weekly.

Mach also paints and travels. She's completed her three dream trips to Egypt, Tanzania and Machu Picchu, but she wants to go to other faraway lands. She has a passion for horses — riding them and collecting equine memorabilia, including a rare sculpture by Nina Kaiser of her favorite horse, Zenyatta.

Mach doesn't have enough time in the day to play the piano, but she still reveres the 88-keyed instrument.

And Mach believes she will always be a musical guide for those who will follow.

"I will never stop teaching," she said. "And I will never stop learning."

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