Lynne Wainwright Palmer



Lynne Wainwright Palmer—harpist, composer, arranger, teacher, and strong advocate of the American Harp Society--was born Betty Evelyn Wainwright, on December 6, 1918, in Cleveland, Ohio, to highly musical parents.  Her mother, Jeannette Wainwright, was a violinist, violist, and pianist, who had attended Oberlin College.  Her father, John William (Jack) Wainwright, established the first high school music program in Ohio, and in 1926 established the first summer music camp in the United States in LaGrange, Indiana.  In such a home environment, Betty’s musical talent and capability was not treated as extraordinary. 

She began studying piano at age three, and added the violin beginning at age six.  When she began attending her father’s summer camp at age ten, she played many more instruments, including flute, clarinet, cello, and oboe, depending on what was needed for a particular rehearsal or performance.

Growing up in rural Indiana did not restrict Betty’s early musical experiences.  Her mother and a pianist provided accompaniment for silent films at the local theater, and going to Friday movie nights exposed Betty to a wealth of repertoire.  She learned to play much of it by ear.  And though she enjoyed all the instruments she played, especially the violin, she said that once she began playing the harp, that eclipsed all the others.

Clarence Byrn, of Cass Technical High School in Detroit, first suggested that Betty play the harp.  In spite of her father’s initial resistance, Betty went to Detroit for two weeks to study with Velma Froude at Cass.  She returned home able to play some arpeggios and three little pieces, and became an instant celebrity.  And because three girls in LaGrange wanted to learn to play the harp as soon as they heard her, Betty began to teach almost immediately. 

In 1934, Betty’s mother heard a radio broadcast of a student harpist from the Curtis Institute, and recognized that the playing was unusually good.  The family decided that Betty should apply to attend and study there, which she did.  Betty was accepted at Curtis, but because she was only 16, and because there were only two openings for the three qualified harpists who had auditioned, she was asked to wait a year before attending.  That summer, Dr. H.W. Stopher, Director of the School of Music at Louisiana State University, came to her father’s summer music camp to recruit students.  As Betty at that point had no firm plans for college, she eagerly accepted his offer, not to enroll as a student, but to teach at LSU in the fall. 

Of course, while there she took advantage of many opportunities.  She played in the University Symphony and the Opera orchestra.  She was a featured soloist with the University Cadet Band, and also with the Shreveport Symphony.  She was invited to join an international music honorary fraternity for women, Sigma Alpha Iota, in addition to a scholarship honorary, Alpha Lambda Delta. 

The following year she abandoned all the heady acclaim and became a student of Carlos Salzedo at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.  After some initial discomfort and feelings of intimidation, she began to trust Mr. Salzedo, and worked diligently at learning his technique and applying it with the harp.  She eventually became one of his prize students, even changing her name at his suggestion that “Betty” was not an appropriate name for a concert artist, and “Lynne” would be much more suitable. 

As her studies with him became more enjoyable, respect and friendship blossomed.  She prized a portrait of Mr. Salzedo that he had inscribed, “To Lynne, whose friendship and unique artistry are among the most precious thoughts of my life.” 

Lynne’s Curtis career offered a wealth of opportunities.  She was one of the original members of the Barton Harp Quintet, organized by Maryjane Mayhew Barton.  She played with the Curtis Symphony Orchestra under Fritz Reiner, and the Philadelphia Opera Company under Sylvan Levin.  An unexpected vacancy in the Philadelphia Orchestra afforded her an opportunity to play in Carnegie Hall, under Eugene Ormandy.  She gave a debut recital at the Barbizon Plaza Concert Hall in New York.  Her four years at Curtis culminated in her receiving the first Mary Louise Curtis Bok Award, recognizing her as the outstanding graduate of her class, which also included a gifted young pianist named Leonard Bernstein.

Lynne embarked on a concert and orchestral career, beginning by auditioning and being chosen for Leopold Stokowski’s All-American Youth Orchestra, with which she toured South America in the summer of 1940, and the United States in the summer of 1941.  Her next orchestral position was as harpist for the Indianapolis Symphony, under Fabien Sevitsky.  The following year she was appointed (without audition) first harpist with the Philadelphia Orchestra.  She resigned from that position to marry Alan Palmer and start a family.  They lived first in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where Alan was finishing his studies at the University of Michigan Medical School.  Lynne began teaching at the university, establishing a harp department that had grown to 22 students by the time she and Alan moved to Seattle in 1947. 

In Seattle, Lynne began teaching privately in 1953, and established the harp department at the University of Washington in 1958.  Her first private student was Pamela Campbell, later Pamela Vokolek, who succeeded Lynne at the University of Washington.  When Ms. Vokolek retired, she was succeeded by another of Lynne’s students, Heidi Lehwalder.  Sought out as a teacher and coach throughout her career, Mrs. Palmer inspired students and “grand students” through many years, both from her University of Washington studio and her studio at home. 

After she learned of the death of Carlos Salzedo in 1961, Lynne dedicated a significant portion of her time and energy to composition for the harp, studying with Gerald Kechley at the University of Washington.  When she was the opening concert artist for the 1984 American Harp Society Conference in St. Paul, Minnesota, the program consisted entirely of her own compositions. 

Mrs. Palmer continued composing for most of the rest of her life, in addition to transcribing and arranging works from the classical repertoire, and adding some jazz standards for a change of pace.  She has written pieces for students who had special performing opportunities, composed on commission from local orchestras, and in general expanded the harp repertoire.  Her works have entered the harp literature, are now being played by some of our finest harpists, and are being selected as required pieces in major competitions.

Lynne recognized early on the need for harpists to have professional connections and to support each other dealing with the unusual demands and opportunities provided by their instrument.  Six years after the founding of the American Harp Society, she helped establish the Greater Seattle Chapter of AHS, and served as its first president in 1968–1970.  Often serving as adjudicator herself, she influenced the chapter’s dedication to the Music Education Auditions, which have been held every year since the founding of the chapter.  She served the AHS in larger capacities, as part of the Board of Directors in 1971–1974, Northwest Regional Director, Chairman of the Board (1989), and Vice President (1989–1990).  She organized the National Conference that was held at the University of Washington in 1974. 

Lynne Wainwright Palmer was a true pioneer of the harp, and her life and accomplishments stand as an inspiration to hundreds of lives.  Those lives, and her music, are her enduring, living legacy.