Key witnesses

“Stop that stuttering, Missy Miller!” I can hear my piano teacher’s voice as clearly now as when I sat scrunched up next to her on the piano bench in first grade. “Sit up straight, curve those fingers, and feel the music!”

It was Sister Mary Luke’s undoubted direct connection to the divine that cured me of stuttering. More miraculous was her ability to instill in my little heathen heart a lifelong love of music.

Not singing in the choir, not working magic on the composing computer, not even playing duets with flirty partners can duplicate the intensity that exists in the close relationship children have with their private music teachers.

For teenagers especially, music teachers can play a crucial role. “Adolescents are breaking away from the family but still feel the need for guidance,” says Virginia Ramig, who ought to know — she’s been teaching piano for more than 50 years. Music teachers become, in essence, role models “for wanting to do well at what you do,” she says.

The members of the Asheville Piano Teachers Forum are dedicated to improving their skills as teachers and helping connect like-minded colleagues and students in Western North Carolina. An upcoming concert will feature 10 to 12 members of the group strutting their stuff on the ivories.

“For years, we’ve had students perform,” says Forum co-founder Karen Boyd, “but this is the first concert by the teachers themselves. It’s a pretty special event; there’ll be a remarkable level of playing.” Most of the music is from the Romantic and Impressionist periods: Mozart, Chopin, Debussy — heart-charging favorites for even the most classical-challenged ears.

“Anyone who comes to the concert will be highly aware of how successful we are as a group,” says Boyd. “They’ll see the camaraderie between the performers and the teachers, and they’ll be able to feel our wonderful group energy.”

That success, however, was hardly instant. Ten years ago, Boyd arrived in town from Pennsylvania. Eager and qualified (with a degree from one of the best music schools in the country, Oberlin Conservatory, a master’s in performing from Westchester University, and three years toward her doctorate at Rutgers), she figured she’d soon be employed in music. (Uh huh — welcome to Asheville, creative spirit!)

She did all the right things, including introducing herself to the doyenne of Asheville musical connections, Lesley Cohen, the Print Music Manager at Dunham’s music store in east Asheville. Boyd sent her resume to the local colleges and passed out a thousand fliers announcing she was available for private music lessons.

Meanwhile, she had to put those highly educated fingers to work on the assembly line at the Beacon Blanket factory.

Eventually, a job in music did come — and private students, too. But it was a long, often-disheartening struggle. At a local music-teachers’ workshop, Boyd met fellow Oberlin graduate Polly Feitzinger, and soon, the Asheville Piano Teachers Forum began to take shape. Unlike other professional-music groups, these teachers openly refer students and teachers to one another, trying to match up the needs of a particular student with the specialty of a teacher.

This unusual collaborative spirit is one reason for the group’s success — the membership has swelled to nearly 30 and has expanded to include men.

“If you knew how many people in this town all those teachers in the Forum have influenced,” says Cohen, “you would be amazed. They are serious about what they do and are serious about having their students succeed.” That can mean helping a student with severe dyslexia, who learns to read and write words by first learning to read music. Others consider students who go on to become music teachers themselves the ultimate reward.

For Feitzinger, if her students do nothing more than play the piano their whole life, “To me, that’s success.”

“The big thing is to motivate students,” says Ramig, a past president of the Forum. “Give them music they are going to enjoy. … Kids love syncopation, music with a jazz or rock feeling.”

So are today’s piano-playing kids hoping to become the next Elton John or Alicia Keys? Not necessarily: Their heroes are often closer to home.

“Someone in the family knows how to play,” says Ramig. “[It’s] ‘my father’ or ‘Aunt Mary,’ and they want to play just like that.”

Whether you’re a young beginner or an older one (a surprising number of today’s students are well into their senior years), there’s only one “secret” to successfully conquering the ivories.

“Practice, practice, practice!” says Feitzinger.

But it’s how you practice that really counts. The biggest mistake students make is repeatedly playing a piece from beginning to end without working out the troublesome areas. “The good teacher will isolate the problem spot and help the student with it,” says Feitzinger. “The students who make the most progress are the ones who work on the problem areas and practice them.” That’s on-key advice from either side of the bench.

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