THIS WEEK’S TOP STORIES
Education: Eighty-eight keys to success
By Charles Swenson
Iyanna Miller doesn’t miss a note as she picks out a melody on the Yamaha upright tucked under the shelves of math books, empty three-ring binders and crayons in a storage room at Teach My People. She switches to her left hand and plays the bass line.
With both hands on the keyboard and three nods of her head, she launches into a piece a third time. If the result is a less than perfect, that’s because playing the piano is harder than it looks, the fifth-grader says. “It’s a lot of hand mixture.”
“All right. It’s coming,” says Alice Gustafson, who teaches Iyanna every Monday afternoon. They move on to learn a few more lines.
There are eight students at the Christian after-school program who take piano lessons from Gustafson and Jane Rogers. The students are selected by Teach My People staff because they have an interest in music and are doing well in their school work. School work is the priority, Rogers said.
There are other students who could take lessons, but the numbers are limited by access to keyboards that are given to the music students to take home and use for practice. The keyboards they have, like the piano, are donated. Rogers started looking for new donations last month.
“If I had my choice, everybody would have a piano,” she said. She knows that isn’t practical. She and Gustafson also know that practice, on any instrument, has to compete with a range of other activities. And they know that the factors that make Teach My People students at risk of failure in the classroom have an impact on their piano practice.
“It’s not just teaching music,” Gustafson said. “You’re keeping them on the right track.”
Rogers started the piano lessons a few years ago, long enough so that her first students are now in high school. Gustafson, who had been a Teach My People tutor for many years, joined her. Both earned degrees in education and have taught piano privately.
“I’m giving back,” said Rogers, who started playing piano at age 8. She grew up in New York, where her father was an attorney. He was a jazz lover and would bring musicians home. She and her father ended up taking lessons together.
Rogers still takes lessons in jazz piano from a teacher in Maryland. She lived in the Washington, D.C., area working in social services and teaching piano nights and weekends to supplement her income as a single parent.
“This is such a gift to be able to give a child,” Rogers said. Most of her students give up the piano, but some continue to play other instruments in their school band. The lessons give them exposure to music, individual attention from a teacher and an emotional outlet.
“It gives them something positive they can relate to,” Rogers said. “I was an only child. I used to go in and play the piano. I was playing my heart out. I wasn’t playing well.”
Gustafson started playing piano when she was 10. She knew the instrument was a big investment for her family. “You never had to tell me to practice,” she said.
She taught first in public school, then took on private students. She has been teaching piano for 50 years. Along with hearing every variety of discordant notes and offbeat tempos, she said she has heard every excuse for not practicing.
Their students will give recitals for the other Teach My People students at the end of the year. Even if they make mistakes, they still get cookies, Iyanna said.
She said she practices on her keyboard four times a week. “If I practice four days, I kind of get it,” she said.
She also gets to play for her Sunday school class at St. John AME Church, which is an added incentive.
Tanisha White, a fourth-grade student, said she is doing better now that she is remembering to put her music book in her school bag. An aunt who plays the piano inspired her to take lessons. “If you really want to do it, you have to believe in yourself,” she said.
Anyone who has a keyboard they want to donate, can call Rogers at 237-9429. Electronics Etc. at Pawleys Island does free repairs for the program, so even keyboards in need of work are welcome.