Reflections of Ponoka: Sharing the gift of music with a community

Verna Raycraft was born and raised in the Town of Ponoka, graduated from the Ponoka High School in 1948 and as a young girl

Verna Raycraft proudly stands beside a delightful decorative tree in her piano room that displays many of the hundreds of Ponoka and district students that she has had so much pleasure teaching for more than 40 years. Her home also contains many wonderful memories and mementos of a colorful musical career that Verna believes she has been so blessed to have been able to share with others

Verna Raycraft was born and raised in the Town of Ponoka, graduated from the Ponoka High School in 1948 and as a young girl developed a great love and dedication for music. The daughter of Connie and Vera Cerveny really enjoyed watching and joining in with her father when he played his piano in the living room, as well as the French horn when he marched with the Ponoka Bank in the community parades around town. Verna was delighted when her loving parents insisted that she take private music lessons, a gift of a lifetime that allowed her to achieve her teaching certificate from the Royal Conservatory in Toronto, and soon begin a colorful career that has spanned more than four decades. From the moment that she sat down with her first young student, and for the next 40 plus years, she has always been so very thankful to have been blessed with the opportunity, and firmly believes that ‘the ability to give others pleasure through music is truly a gift.”

Verna humbly tells her story of her adventure in music

Not only has the ability to play the piano brought me so much personal pleasure, but also a tremendous satisfaction in knowing that I have instilled the love of music into the lives of so many others. My ambition was to teach music, and when I finally qualified to do this, I found that my lack of patience at the first attempt was a disappointing experience, so I finished the term, decided it was enough, and took employment at the Alberta Hospital for a few years.

Then one day Verna received a phone call from the wife of one of her former music teachers Mr. W. J. Young, who had passed away just a two months before his students were to have their Royal Conservatory exams, asking if she would please take over their teaching until after the testing. By that time she and her husband Reg Raycraft already had two children, daughter Shawn and son Brent, she had learned to be much more patient, so she said, “Yes, I will certainly help them.” The children all passed their exams with flying colors, Verna got the teaching bug again in 1968 and as the old saying goes, ‘the rest was history.’ At the peak of her long and exciting teaching career Mrs. Raycraft was teaching 62 students (ages 4 to adults) a week, including after school until 9:30 p.m. on weekdays and all day Saturdays, as well as mentoring many home schooled children during the day. Along the way, her own two children also enjoyed taking music lessons, but not from their mother, because she would not be strict enough.

With a tear in her eye, she quietly expressed how much of a thrill it was to witness the sheer delight on the face of a six year old the first time he could play ‘’Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” or “Jingle Bells”, then many years later seeing him go off to university and eventually major in music. Verna explained among her countless fond memories that the most challenging aspects of her teaching have been preparing her hundreds of students for an appearance in the traditional Wood River Festival, as well as getting them ready for their Royal Conservatory of Music examinations. These supreme efforts always took a great deal of team effort and dedication on the part of the student, the teacher, and the parents, but after bravely working through the constant challenges, moods, and distractions along the way, they were the most rewarding when their goals were achieved. As well as enjoying their regular piano lessons, Verna also encouraged all of her students to practise at home, and always appreciated the keen support of their parents, some of which she had likely taught, while others may not have had the opportunity to take lessons, but wanted their children to have the joy of music. Through over two generations of students, Verna has been so very proud to have seen so many of her pupils continue their studies, become teachers themselves or excel in all areas of music and careers. Local lad Doug Schalin went on to the University of Berlin in Germany to study music, specializing in the pipe organ, and is currently the music director in a Toronto church. She is so pleased when former students call or pop in to see her, and has occasionally been thrilled to have had the opportunity of sharing their musical talents together, side by side, once again.

Among Verna Raycraft’s fondest memories were the colorful recitals that she staged with her students throughout the community and districts, often twice a year, and on countless special occasions. She fondly recalled that the first recital her students gave was in 1970 in her living room, and that one of the class members was the daughter of the local funeral director, who so kindly brought some folding chairs from his Ponoka parlor for the performance. As her students increased rapidly in numbers along the way she began hosting the annual program in the school auditorium or church halls, as well as the Seniors’ Care Centres , where they were always greeted and appreciated by big crowds. Verna always looked forward to choosing the theme of these recitals, and her favourite was the Christmas the class did the “Nutcracker Ballet”, which featured a narrator, as well as wonderful costumes for each performing student. Because most of the students took figure skating lessons, they were allowed to borrow costumes from the local club, while the Nutcracker and Tin Soldier outfits were on loan from the Ponoka School Band and the rest of the outfits were found in closets and second hand stores. Other skits over the years included ‘The Witches’ Magic Piano’, with Mrs. Raycraft as the evil lady who cast a spell on her students, as well as themes that featured the Nativity, Western, Hawaiian, Circus, and on and on.

As well as teaching music and raising a family Verna Raycraft also found time to serve for five years on the Provincial Executive of the Alberta Piano Teachers Association, as the pianist or organist at The First Baptist Church, as well as playing at many weddings and funerals. She is also a long-standing member of the Ponoka Legion Ladies’ Auxiliary, and has served in all capacities of Branch #66 for many years. In the later years, the heavy work load took its toll on this very dedicated lady, who suffered a stroke, and had to give up many of the activities she loved so much. Now semi-retired with only 12 students, she is extremely grateful to have had the amazing opportunity of contributing in a small way to the children of our community as their piano teacher, their mentor, and their friend, with sincere hopes that in the years to come they will think of her with many fond memories.