Story and gallery by KATYA WAGSTAFF
When school ends, many kids race out as fast as they can. But others stay to play music written hundreds of years ago. While they wait, some are doing cartwheels or chatting with other students about book fair and recess. Some eat a snack or run around the room. All are waiting for piano lessons.
Faculty, graduate and undergraduate students studying piano at the University of Utah School of Music extend group piano lessons to five local elementary schools through the Piano Outreach Program. Three of the schools are Title I, which means that a large percentage of students come from low-income families. Students at these schools participate in the Piano Outreach Program for free.
According to the program’s website, “The program not only helps them learn a life-long skill, but also seeks to improve their performance in core academic subjects, like math and reading, and to prevent behavior and truancy problems.”
The program’s website further states that the program benefits School of Music piano majors by providing teaching opportunities and the chance to “learn valuable life lessons through service, preparing them for future careers.”
Mio Cowden, coordinator of the Piano Outreach Program, has a short break between private piano lesson instruction. She holds a Doctorate of Musical Arts in piano performance and music history. She teaches at Salt Lake Community College, University of Utah Preparatory Division, and the Piano Outreach Program.
Her piano studio is a small, insulated room holding two sleek, black baby grand pianos side by side. In the corner is a small desk covered with music files. She relaxes on a piano bench with her back leaning against the wall.
Cowden’s role as coordinator entails training graduate student assistants, organizing fundraising and donations, scheduling assignments, observing each school once a month to check students’ progress, contacting principals and answering parents’ questions. “Basically I do a lot of stuff,” she said, laughing.
The program currently teaches approximately 200 students in five schools. These piano lessons expose elementary-aged students to the “joy of music,” Cowden said.
“There are so many kids, not just at Title I schools, who have never had the opportunity to learn piano,” she said.
“When a child walks into my classroom, the circumstances under which they live don’t really matter. That’s what I love about music, it is universal to anyone, no matter their situation. If anything, these children in tough circumstances are more grateful for an opportunity to do something new.”
– Claire Thueson, graduate instructor at Washington Elementary
When students begin piano lessons “they find another talent that they didn’t know they had and they get so excited,” she said.
Cowden explained that not only kids, but their parents also get excited. For example, a father told Cowden about his daughter, a third-grader from Afghanistan who attended one of the Piano Outreach Program elementary schools. Her older brother participated in the piano classes. She wanted to participate, too. However, in her family’s culture and religion, girls don’t learn to play instruments.
This girl still wanted to learn and asked her dad, “Why did you come to America?”
He responded, “To give you more opportunities.”
“Then give me the opportunity to learn the piano!” she cried.
“Let me think about it,” her dad replied.
The next day he decided his daughter was right and gave her permission to attend piano classes after school.
She was very dedicated, Cowden said, and learned Mozart’s “Turkish March” in just one year.
Cowden turns to the piano and plays the first few seconds of the fast-paced piece. This piece is generally for intermediate, not beginner students.
The young girl played this piece at the final concert, held at the School of Music’s Thompson Chamber Hall. Her parents and siblings attended the performance and were thrilled. Her dad realized that girls should also learn what they want to.
Shortly after, her dad called Cowden and relayed their story. He added that after the concert, he bought his daughter a keyboard as a present.
“I’m glad I got her a keyboard,” he says, “but I almost regret it because she’s unstoppable. She practices from morning to night!”
Her brother dropped out of the program, but she never misses a class.
“I’m not trying to change anyone’s culture,” Cowden adds, “because it’s really up to them. But it’s very exciting to see a girl take this opportunity and find a new talent.”
Claire Thueson is a doctoral student who also is currently a graduate instructor at Washington Elementary, a local Title I school.
She spends about 12 hours every week preparing for and teaching 24 students at the elementary school.
“I have students of all ages and backgrounds that come to piano class, anywhere from first-graders to sixth-graders,” Thueson said via email.
The kids are split into groups: one plays musical games or worksheets with an undergraduate assistant, while the other group practices on the keyboards for their recital. Thueson rotates the groups, “giving assistance and offering encouragement and correction when needed.”
Similar to Cowden, Thueson believes some of the strengths of the program are that it is “able to offer exposure to music to a large number of children that otherwise may not get the opportunity.”
Some of the challenges she faces include making sure each child is getting “personalized education and attention,” despite their various ages and abilities.
Although she teaches at a Title I school with a high percentage of students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, Thueson said, “I honestly don’t notice a huge amount of difference. When a child walks into my classroom, the circumstances under which they live don’t really matter. That’s what I love about music, it is universal to anyone, no matter their situation. If anything, these children in tough circumstances are more grateful for an opportunity to do something new.”
Another graduate instructor, Cheney Doane, teaches at Uintah Elementary. This school does not have Title I status, so the class is fee-based, though group class tuition is cheaper than private piano lessons.
His classes also include a range of students from first to fourth grade. Although it’s a challenge to keep them engaged despite different levels, Doane also considers the age range a benefit.
“It’s an asset to have this group of students together because they can learn from each other.”
Not all of these kids will continue studying music, but that’s OK, Doane said. If they want to continue, the Piano Outreach Program provides a “stable foundation” in music. If they don’t, it’s still a “positive, brain-healthy way to spend time after school.”
Doane wants his students to have fun and look forward to this class.
“I want their association with music to be positive, not filled with dread,” he said.
Doane’s most rewarding moments are at the end of lessons when parents come to pick up their children. A student will run up and say, “Mom or Dad, come listen to this piece that I can play!”
The Piano Outreach Program takes a lot of commitment and time. “There are days when you walk in thinking, ‘I don’t want to do this today,’” Doane said, “and you walk out thinking, ‘Man, I’m really glad I had Outreach today.’”