Elmer Heerema had one great desire when he was a tot – he couldn’t wait to take piano lessons. Born and raised in a loving home in Paterson, New Jersey, Elmer’s parents, both amateur musicians, enjoyed and encouraged their six children to appreciate the beauty of both classical and sacred music. However, Elmer had to be patient because his two older siblings were studying the piano, and he had to wait his turn. Finally at the age of seven, he began lessons, which he pursued zestfully throughout college.
Elmer’s focus on musical studies was enriched when he attended Westminster Choir College, Princeton, New Jersey. Majoring in piano performance and minoring in choral music, Elmer was one of 40 students selected to sing in the school’s touring choir as well as the larger symphonic choir which performed regularly with major orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic.
Following his college graduation in 1961, Elmer served as a Teaching Fellow at The New School for Music Study, a piano teacher training center also in Princeton. After teaching at the New School for a year, Elmer auditioned for the United States Army Chorus, located in Fort Myer, Arlington, Virginia. He was accepted in the 40-voice chorus, which performed at presidential and diplomatic functions in the Washington D.C. area. While in the Army, Elmer received his Masters of Music at the Catholic University of America with a piano performance major and a minor in choral conducting.
After Elmer was discharged from the Army Chorus, he returned to The New School for Music Study in 1965, and in 1968 he was promoted as head of the professional piano department where he performed solo and duo-piano recitals. He also led numerous workshops throughout the country. In 1969 Elmer married Denna Heeres from Grand Rapids, Michigan, who was his youngest brother’s high school English teacher.
In 1970 Elmer answered a phone call that would change his life. The call was from the head of the Music Department at California State University Northridge, offering Elmer the position of Professor of Music. His academic responsibilities included teaching private piano instruction, piano ensemble, class-piano, and the exciting challenge of directing the University Chorus of approximately one hundred students.
For 17 summers Elmer and Denna along with their two children escaped the hot San Fernando Valley to spend the summer in Traverse City, Michigan, where Elmer taught piano classes at the well-known National Music and Arts Camp, Interlochen, MI.
While teaching at CSUN, Elmer became a student as well, completing his DMA degree (Doctor of Musical Arts) at USC with a major in piano performance and a minor in sacred choral music. In addition to his teaching, Elmer not only directed a church choir but was also inspired to write and publish a college textbook, Progressive Class Piano, an adult beginner textbook still used today in college music classes.
Even though most of Elmer’s career was focused in academic settings, he continues to find fulfillment in inspiring and motivating volunteer church choir members who not only enjoy choral music, but also desire to communicate the meaning of the sacred text. Church choral experience offered Elmer the opportunity to serve as choir director in several churches of different denominations in the LA area, one of which was the Chancel Choir at Bel Air Presbyterian Church for several years. Elmer is presently the choir director in the neighboring Holy Trinity Lutheran Church where he and Denna became members when they moved to UVTO in 2018.
In addition to a life dedicated and inspired by music, Elmer enjoys other pleasures that add harmony to his life: photography, traveling, gardening, meaningful friendships and relationships, especially with his two married children, five grandchildren, and with his wife and best friend Denna of fifty-one years.
By Carol Keochekian