When our Piano Students Inspire Others: The Socially Conscious Piano Studio
Engaging in acts of kindness and collaboration is a mainstay of healthy living and a profound way to head off feelings of isolation, burnout, and depression. At the age students typically start piano lessons, they are also reaching a developmental stage in which they begin to think outside of themselves. All schools implement statewide curriculum goals that introduce young people to concepts of community, starting with a student's town or city. Upper elementary grades work at the state level, middle schools work on understanding our country, and each successive grade builds on our global relationships. Children respond amazingly well when they are given an opportunity to work collaboratively for the greater good of their community, and it becomes important for us as teachers to remind our students that we study music because it is a collaborative, social, communicative art between ourselves and others.
My students have found inspiration to practice through their ability to use music to do good for the world around them. Students can help others by playing for charity benefits or, in this case, asking family members to sponsor their practicing (much like Walks for a Cause or Race for the Cure). This feeling of "agency," the ability to successfully urge others to make a change, is incredibly motivating for all of us, including our youngest students.
One year, my students worked with our local Audubon center to foster rescued cold-stunned sea turtles. Another year we worked with a foundation in Kenya that rescues baby elephants abandoned by ivory poachers. We have opened the walls of our studio to the outside community, making connections with music studios across the world, including post-communist Albania and a new music school in the environmentally sensitive Easter Island in the South Pacific Ocean. It is not difficult to implement some community projects into your studio. If you do, I think you will find that your students will practice with renewed intention. Then, perhaps, they will return again and again to the piano as they discover that music speaks, as Victor Hugo spoke, of that "which we must not be silent."
Starting top left and moving clockwise: 1. Fostering Baby Elephants in Nairobi, Kenya at the Tsavo National Park with the SheldrickWildlifeTrust.org. Only 415,000 African elephants remain in the wild. 2. Saving Kemp's Ridley Seat Turtles on Cape Cod, MA. Female nesting Ridleys number under a thousand. 3. Composer Alban Dhamo on top of one of 750,000 bomb shelters built but never used across the entire country of Albania. These bunkers were built by Communist Dictator Enver Hoxha (1944–1985) depleting the Albanian economy of food, education, and other resources. 4. The giant statues are a World Heritage Site on Easter Island in the southeastern Pacific Ocean. Called Moai, they were created by early Rapa Nui people. Easter Island is inundated with trash that washes over from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Here's How We Do It!
We have become a project-based studio. In fact, my students helped me to come up with a byline that now explains what we do on a regular basis: The Studio of Penny Lazarus— Interacting with the World One Key at a Time! But you do not have to reorient your teaching style or teaching practices to implement a community project during your teaching year. What do I mean by a project-based studio? I choose an all-encompassing theme each summer and this theme drives a portion of our selected piano music, theory, history, and compositional assignments from September through June. This annual project can be a focused study of a single composer (Bartok), or a period of music (the Baroque era), or a more abstract theme (music about water). While good musical practices are foremost in my mind, our annual theme always includes a community fundraising project in which students find sponsors who will fund their practice time at three cents a minute over the course of a six-week time period.
Tracking Practice for Fundraising
I provide detailed project plans, information, and dates for the fundraising period to every family well in advance of our starting week. Students keep track of their minutes spent practicing each day and in their practice notebooks. After the six weeks are over, we add up the minutes to find the total amount of dollars earned. I don't collect money weekly, but wait until the entire fundraising period is over. On average, students will reach a contribution of $25. Some students may earn well over $30, depending upon age and time spent at the piano. Even though many families will round up an earned amount, I never require donations from families. Scholar students with a reduced lesson tuition plan are often sponsored by former piano families, who are delighted to contribute to the project.
7th grader Aidan Reynolds keeping track of his practice minutes in our studio lesson notebook.
Fundraising Projects Must Tie into Music Studies
My studio families have all found these to be exciting and worthy goals; parents and relatives often double or triple the amount of dollars raised through sponsorships. We typically raise $1,000 each year for a specified cause, but your studio can make an impact with much less. It is most important that these community fundraising projects align closely with a student's personal pianistic goals and that the ensuing relationship among foundation, music school, and your studio be mutually collaborative and beneficial for all parties. More often than not, my students participate in the creation of ideas and details of our collaboration. Group projects are a hallmark of student-centered learning. It's this "agency," the ability for students to influence change, that creates excitement in the piano studio. Parents and students have repeatedly told me how much they enjoy our collaborations and how deeply they inform our recitals. I assume they are sincere in their compliments, since the retention rate in my studio annually reaches 90 percent.
FOUR SAMPLES OF COMMUNITY AND MUSIC-BASED FUNDRAISING PROJECTS
Students will easily connect with fundraising projects that help protect wildlife. One of our favorites is The Sheldrick Wildlife Trust that operates in Kenya rescuing baby elephants, whose mothers have been killed by ivory poachers, and raising them in the protected Nairobi's Tsavo National Park, where they can live out their full lives. The Sheldrick Wildlife Trust raises money by asking people to "adopt" an orphaned elephant. For as little as $50, your studio can receive monthly updates and photos of your baby elephant for a year.
This is all well and good, but how does it relate to the piano? In a word: ivory. The illegal collection of ivory still fuels an active black market. While pianos are no longer manufactured using ivory for keys, many of our students still play on older pianos. And even though the market for ivory piano keys should no longer exist, this is a great opportunity to study, for example, the history of the piano spanning harpsichords to electric pianos, or maybe focus on a period of music such as the Baroque or Romantic period, in which changes to the piano led to changes in composition and performance. (sheldrickwildlifetrust.org/orphans)
My students and I live on the ocean in seaside Essex County, which is the Northeastern-most area in Massachusetts. We are all extremely aware of the encroachment of non-native species of plants, powerboat fishing nets, environmental pollution, and climate change that threaten extinction of marine life. One such situation is the endangered Kemp's Ridley sea turtle, whose female nesting numbers are now below a thousand. With waters warming more every year, these sea turtles are swimming into Canada, farther north than normal, where they are unprepared for the increasing cold of November ocean currents. By the time they turn south for their annual migration back to the warm winter beaches in the Gulf of Mexico, they become so cold-stunned that their navigational senses deteriorate and they arrive by the hundreds near death on the frozen beaches of Wellfleet, MA (in the crook of the arm that shapes the Cape). The Audubon Society of Wellfleet is ground zero for the rescue of these smallest of all sea turtles during the months of November and December. Their staff is inundated with frozen turtles requiring veterinary care, providing banana boxes with blankets to hold the sea turtles for evaluation as well as dozens of kiddie pools filled with warm water. Donations are crucial for success. We started the piano year by studying Handel's Water Music and Fireworks suites and extended our sound connection to music about rivers. (The Water Music suites were first performed on the banks of the Thames River in commemoration of King George I). Barcarolles, sailors' songs by Heller, Schumann, and Grieg, spirituals such as Wade in the Water, At the River and Deep River, Kabalevksy's Night on the River, and music suggesting swans (think Swan Lake, "The Swan" from Carnival of the Animals, and Julie Knerr's "The Swan" from Piano Safari) extend the subject to all ages in the studio. Add in pieces from The Little Mermaid, Free Willy, Sponge Bob Square Pants, Moon River, Over the Rainbow, and Firework by Katy Perry and you can also provide ties to popular music. (massaudubon.org/get-outdoors/wildlife-sanctuaries/ wellfleet-bay/)
Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary Center. The Kemp's Ridley Sea Turtle rescue operation of November 2016. Photo credits: Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary.
Easter Island Project
As part of our outreach to the community, we annually partner with the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival led by David Yang, Director of the University of Pennsylvania's Chamber Music department and Ensemble Epomeo violist. Every March, David brings an accomplished pianist to Newburyport and, on the morning of their concert, the pianist works with my students in a public "un-masterclass" setting. Our annual theme often derives from this solo concert program, proposed a year in advance. This past year, New York City pianist Michael Brown proffered a piano recital with music about the ocean, which led us to another "water" music project. This time, however, we focused on music about the ocean and island cultures, along with the problem of plastics left on our beaches, littering the ocean floor and devastating sea life; whales are turning up dead with over 80 lbs. of refuse in their bellies and sea turtles are found swimming with plastic straws stuck in their noses. This trash that we all create is threatening the existence of small islands whose people cannot possibly handle the tons of rubbish that never completely decomposes and drifts forever on ocean currents pulling toward their shores.
Piano student Alexandra Paciulan meeting with Julie Towne, head of development of Wellfleet Audubon, at our end-of-year piano recital where the exchange of donations took place.
There is a treasure trove of music about the ocean because of the nineteenth-century's preoccupation with high seas, leisure boat travel, and devastating storms resulting in shipwrecks. One might imagine Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata, Chopin's "Raindrop" Prelude, Mendelsohn's "On the Sea Shore," Burgmüller's "The Storm," and Heller's "Through Wind and Rain" and "Avalanche," to name just a few. We expanded our European-based repertoire to include folk music from countries impacted by the sea, including Inuit melodies, Icelandic children's songs, and Sakura from Japan. We also added music by contemporary composers: William Gillock's "Summer Storm" and Anne Crosby Gaudet's "Angel Fish"; "Starfish in the Night" and "Evening Sail" by Melody Bober; "Mist" by Carolyn Miller; "The Shark" by Catherine Rollins; John Williams' theme song from the movie Jaws; "Make Your Own Storm" by Dianne Goolkasian Rahbee; Lin-Manuel Miranda's "How Far I'll Go" from the movie Moana; and music from Titanic and Pacific, by Ryan O'Neil. Here is a wide range of music for every level and every music taste in the studio! For our joint fundraising project, we worked with the new Rapa Nui School of Music and the Arts on Easter Island, Chile, that aims to support 100 children and adults with free music lessons. The school itself, built in the shape of a flower, is made entirely out of recycled materials: ten tons of recycled plastic pellets, 30,000 aluminum cans, and 20,000 glass bottles. We raised more than one thousand dollars to help this school's goals that include classical music and ancestral Rapanui music lessons. The teachers at the school sent us handwritten unpublished piano scores of original folk music that we then incorporated into our end-of-year recital. My students continue to write pen pal letters both in English and Spanish to their new friends in Chili. (https://tokirapanui.org › school-of-music)
In 2017 we undertook our first transatlantic project. While researching the Hungarian, Rumanian, and Magyar folk melodies that Bartok used in his piano music, I was introduced to Alban Dhamo and his wife Erinda Agolli, who live in Tirana, Albania! Alban is a contemporary composer and Erinda is a singer, as well as a voice and piano teacher. We worked out a mutual project: Alban wrote twelve pieces for my studio based on Albanian folk melodies, just as Bartok used ethnic melodies of his homeland in his works for children. Then we found out that the music school at the Lincoln Center for Language and the Arts in Tirana, where both Alban and Erinda work, did not have access to any of the pedagogy materials that we take for granted in our studios. Until 1985, Albania was a communist country where the dictator Enver Hoxa disavowed the study of all arts and music unless it was in service to the regime. Thirty-five years later, the country is successfully developing a free market system, but, alas, no one has opened up a music bookstore in the country. Salaries are still quite low in Albania, with an average middle-class worker earning only $60 per month. Credit cards are scarce, ordinary citizens do not have access to many websites, and import fees and a still dysfunctional post office system make sending packages a risky and expensive proposition. Our fundraising efforts went to purchasing multiple levels of our most frequently used piano series and paid for extra luggage fees. In the end, 500 piano books were personally delivered to the music school.
Teacher Penny Lazarus with piano students Harry Meurer looking over the many donated books to send to the Lincoln Center of the Arts, Tirana, Albania. Photo credit Jim Vaiknoros/The Daily News of Newburyport. These donated books and new music were hand delivered, using five suitcases, by David Turner, who lives in my hometown of Newburyport but volunteered with the Peace Corp in Tirana, Albania. David and his musician wife Bettina were instrumental in setting up this studio partnership. Half of the money we raised went to help pay the extra luggage fees at the airport, when David brought the suitcases with him as he traveled from Boston to Tirana in September 2018.
This has been an amazing collaboration. We studied interesting and unusual rhythms all year long, as this is what characterizes Bartok's (and Eastern European and Balkan folk) music. My students loved the syncopated rhythms. Alban and Erinda do have access to Skype and we have been sharing music in recital format ever since: our students take turns playing back and forth through computers in our studios.
Composer and Music Theory teacher Alban Dhamo reacting with tears while listening to student Sam LeMoine play Alban's "Albanian March."
Student Sam LeMoine listening to composer Alban Dhamo's appreciation of Sam's performance of "Albanian March."
Skyping with Erinda Agolli's students at the Lincoln Center for the Arts just before Halloween, October 27, 2018.
The search for community or music projects need not span the globe. Sometimes the most in need are music programs for the underprivileged or worthy foundations right in our own backyard.
I'll leave you with a telling story. On the Saturday morning before Halloween, 2018, we shared a Skype recital with our Albanian counterparts. We proceeded to share music with all the students dressed up in costumes, as Albanian children also participate in that custom. It was 9:00 a.m. our time, 3:00 p.m. in Albania. One of my students decided to play the theme song, "Won't You Be My Neighbor," from the television show Mr. Roger's Neighborhood. This couldn't have been more appropriate. Once my students left, I turned on the television to witness, in real time, a racist madman killing eleven congregants of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA. (This was deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the United States.) I am from Pittsburgh. I know that synagogue well. It is in the same block as the house and studio of my beloved piano teacher Natalie Phillips, who gave my own fingers their musical life. Some of those killed were parents of friends of mine. One was my mother's mahjong partner. Fred Rogers had lived nearby with his piano-concertizing wife. His show that taught love for your neighbor no matter their color or religion was produced one neighborhood away. I checked the photos of our Skype recital. The shooting started just as my student, Theo Roberts, was playing "Won't You Be My Neighbor" to children half a world away, with love, affection, and respect in all of our hearts. There is a Yiddish expression called Bersherit meaning "it was meant to be." In our studio, this poignant coincidence strengthens our resolve to inspire others with music and kindness.
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