Not far from me lives my friend, the wonderful Barbara Maier Gustern, New York’s most treasured voice teacher. The Chelsea Hotel stands between us, but I can picture her living room. She can see the Empire State Building in all its majesty from her window.

Bobbi Jo at Radio City in 2007 (photo Romy Ashby)
The night that I met her years ago at a performance by Tammy Faye Starlite (who I feel lucky to have as a friend as well), Barbara mentioned that she’d come to New York as a young singer in the 1950s, and that she grew up in a little town in Indiana called Boonville. I thought of my old friend Larry, also from Indiana, and I said, “Oh! Do you know Larry Camp?” Of course she wouldn’t know Larry, because Indiana is a big state. But she did know him! She just hadn’t seen him in fifty years. She said: “Larry Camp was the cutest little boy in the world!" 

When I got home I called Larry, and he plotzed. “Barbara Maier! You mean little Bobbi Jo? We had the same piano teacher!” He said he'd always thought Bobbi Jo was an absolutely beautiful girl, and a sweetheart.
Larry Camp in 1945
Bobbi Jo at 7, when she started piano lessons
For decades the two of them had lived less than three miles apart here in Manhattan and didn’t know it. I remember their reunion at Barbara’s. Her husband Joe served a delicious lasagna and sang an aria for us in his beautiful, deep voice. Larry and Barbara talked about Norma Maurer, their piano teacher, and that period of time in Boonville, in the ‘40s. They spoke of Norma’s old house with its porch, and I pictured an old lady in black setting the metronome going. Larry said following Bobbi Jo at lesson time always made him feel hopeless about his own piano future. 

A couple of months ago, on February 10th, 2020, I went to Bobbi Jo’s 85th birthday party at Joe’s Pub downtown, the best birthday party I’ve ever attended. All varieties of singers, her fabulous students, performed to celebrate her and to raise money for the Holy Apostles soup kitchen. It was a ball. We couldn’t have imagined the whole city being shut down in five weeks’ time, not daring even to sing together. Right now, Bobbi Jo is giving her lessons via Skype. 

My favorite pianist, Angela Hewitt, who I’ve been very lucky to see perform here in New York, is in quarantine in London. She records videos of herself playing pieces on her phone, and posts them for everyone. Listening to her play, seeing her window where birds are singing outside, I found myself wondering about the inside of Norma Maurer’s house. So I called Bobbi Jo, who has an elephant memory, to ask her. Our wee interview, below:


Romy: Listening to Governor Cuomo speak recently, I was reminded of Fiorello LaGuardia reading Dick Tracy comics on the radio during the Depression for the kids.  I thought of FDR, too. Certain leaders have a way of comforting a nation in hard times, and Cuomo seems to be doing that right now.

Bobbi Jo: I think so too. He tells the truth, but he’s developed this really kind approach that doesn’t scare us, he doesn’t hit us over the head with it. I remember when FDR died. I was coming down the steps of the Heavenly Memorial Presbyterian church after a junior choir practice when someone yelled from the street: “The president just died!” I remember that as plain as if it were right now. I loved FDR. All the Maiers were Republicans, but when I was little I insisted on having a picture of FDR on the wall. He reminded me a little of my grandfather, I think, and I would have liked to crawl up in his lap and have him tell me stories. I loved listening to his voice on the radio on the Fireside Chats.

Do you remember what your piano teacher’s house was like inside?

Oh, very well. Norma lived in a typical small-town Victorian house with her mother. The first room inside the door was the parlor where Norma gave her lessons on an upright piano. The second room was the sitting room where we would wait if we were early. I remember heavy old Victorian furniture and that it was always dark in there. I sat in a very big chair to wait, and there were magazines on the table. Norma’s mother would come in and talk to me, and I had to be very polite with her.

And what about Norma herself?

Well, she was a spinster lady and very proper and primly dressed. She must have been in her thirties, but to me she always seemed like an old woman.

Oh! I always imagined her to be old, from you and from Larry both. What about her personality?

She was kind, and as a teacher she was gentle, but she didn’t inspire in me a desire to really do well. I know she went to St. Mary of the Woods, a women’s college in Indiana, but I don’t remember her having any real passion for music. She never said, “Oh, I love this composer!” Or, “Isn’t this a beautiful phrase?” Her lessons were mechanical. Put your fingers here and do this and this. I think she became a piano teacher because that’s what she could do to make a living, and to tell the truth, I never enjoyed the lessons.

You remind me of a line of poetry my old friend, the painter Loren MacIver, used to paraphrase by e.e. cummings*: “Gee I like to think of death. Death never says, ‘It’s time for your piano lesson.’”

Hahaha! That’s very funny. 

Do you play for your students when you give lessons? 

 I do play quite a bit for my students, but just to get by. I’m not a born pianist, but for me music has always been such a passion.


How is it that at 85, Bobbi Jo is without question one of the youngest and most enthusiastic people I know? She’s five years younger than the Empire State Building! And while Bobbi Jo may be a little slip of a lady, when I think about it, she’s a lot like Madame Empire in her presence. Both are formidable, they're classy, they’ve seen so much, they personify the great city of New York. 

When I listened to Queen Elizabeth address her nation a few days ago and she mentioned her first national address, given in 1940, I thought: Bobbi Jo was five years old when she gave that address!  The Empire State Building was only ten! And isn’t it something, that the Queen is still here, that she’s still the Queen, addressing the world at a time like this? 

I wish good health, patience, and fortitude for everyone who comes across this little post.

7 April 2020

The actual poem by e.e. cummings was called, “Gee I like to Think of Dead”, and the line was: “Dead never says, my dear, time for your music lesson.”

Copyright, Photo credit Romy Ashby


  1. How wonderful is that!! I love finding friends & family from my past! Great story from you! Stay safe Romy!!

  2. Thank you, Linda. You stay safe too, please.

  3. A gem as always, Romy. Thank you. xo

  4. Wonderful. I hope you're safe. xo

  5. So far so good, Suzanne. Please be safe yourself as well.

  6. What a great story, and interview. As always, thank you.