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Piano teachers playing a different tune

Piano and voice coach Debra Cook hears a familiar sound every fall when her students come back from a season spent swimming, playing video games, sleeping at friends’ houses and disregarding their instruments. It’s in the pitch in a student’s voice, the missed note in the Midnight Sonata.

Wah wah wah.

"We have so many casualties over the summer," Debra Cook sighed. "They just lose ground because they don’t keep playing. If they would come in and check with their teacher, they wouldn’t unlearn what they’d learned."

Debra Cook founded the Utah Music Conservatory with her husband, Fredrick Cook, 11 years ago. She has, in that time, seen a seasonal trend so common she came up with a clinical name for what happens when students lose the musical ability they had learned the previous spring: Slippage.

"They slip, they forget," Debra Cook said. The trend is not a new phenomenon, but it is nonetheless frustrating for teachers.

"There has been a big change in the amount of work students do," Debra Cook continued patiently. "They don’t practice as long as they did when I was coming up. I learned to play quickly and I practiced a couple hours a day."

Not true with music students today, teacher say. "It’s easier to get results with voice lessons with less practice," Cook admitted. "With piano, nah. You just gotta move those fingers."

Cook is an adjunct associate professor in the music department at the University of Utah. She said music teachers grapple with something their counterparts in school don’t face. "The assumption is, ‘How hard can it be?’" Cook said.

Plenty hard, says Bryan Stanley, who teaches piano and keyboard at the conservatory. "It’s a rewarding job but it takes a lot of energy," he said. "Sometimes at the end of the week I feel like plugging myself into the wall to recharge."

Stanley teaches 25 students and draws from his advanced degrees in music composition and piano performance. He has tried to modernize his curriculum by letting students dabble in different media, such as electric keyboards, and write their own compositions. "I’m a very patent teacher," he said. "I would say the more a student practices the more they’ll get out of me. I definitely encourage summer study."

Stanley said he wasn’t sure the style of teaching piano had evolved as much through time as it does from teacher to teacher.

Manuel Maravi said he thinks music education has "changed a lot." Maravi learned to play the piano in Argentina. He didn’t own a piano, so instead he practiced on an accordion, with his siblings holding each end. He studied the instrument at Brigham Young University. Today, Maravi teacher 34 students from his home in Bear Hollow. "Music education has changed a lot," he reiterated. "The teacher used to dictate what the child needs to do. Now we listen to the child so they can stay motivated. [As a teacher] you have to pay attention to what kind of music they like."

Some students are easy, Maravi said. They follow instructions. But not everyone is the same.

Maravi recalled a seven-year-old student named Jordan who would hide between his mother legs and shake with fear before each lesson. Jordan arrived at his first recital wearing the giraffe costume he had chosen for Halloween. "That gave him the confidence he needed and he did well," Maravi said. "I try to see the best in everyone because you really don’t know their potential. You have students who are very talented but their attitude isn’t good. You need to get them excited so they’re not doing this for their parents. They’re doing it for themselves."

Debra Cook’s husband, Fredrick Cook, didn’t learn to play the piano in the New Age era of student-knows-best. His piano teacher used a ruler to teach him to play. "I had a terrible time," he rued. "Every time I missed a key she hit me."

Fredrick Cook said today’s teacher have to be caring, compassionate and merciful to get through to their students. "You have to communicate," Fredrick Cook said. "If you’re not communicating you’re just making sound. You’re just blowing air."

That doesn’t mean teaching piano is easy. "Sometimes it’s painful," Cook said. "You’ll ask a five year old what they learned and they’ll say, ‘I don’t know.’"

Cook advised parents to look for instructors who have experience teaching, not just performing. "We want our teachers to operate on a gradient approach," he said. "If you put a performer with a five year old they’ll blow them out of the water. We’ve had that happen a few times."

Frederick Cook said students remain interested in music lessons, but are more likely to try to learn a number of different instruments at once. "What I’ve noticed in the last 10 or 11 years is that people used to come in and play one instrument. Now they play two or three."

Another indication of demand: The Utah Conservatory, formerly Park City Conservatory, had 30 students apply for three scholarships in 2008, Fredrick Cook said.

About 350 students take guitar, bass, trombone, flute, piano and voice lessons at the conservatory. Most of those students have an earnest love of music, not dreams of being divas. "We used to get some of that," Debra Cook said. "Most of the kids these days seem to be well-adjusted and reasonable about their goals. We don’t get many that seem to be somewhat arrogant about it."

Debra Cook added that she tries to get students focusing on the process, not the prize.

Among the ranks of music students at the Utah Conservatory is Caroline Wagner, who takes voice lessons from Debra Cook. During a recent rehearsal, Caroline practiced the Rodgers and Hammerstein number "I Have Confidence In Me" as Debra Cook accompanied on a Young Chang piano.

Caroline’s mother, Tiffany Wagner, drives 50 minutes from Alpine once a week so her daughter can take piano, voice and performance classes at the conservatory. "We drive this far because we think the conservatory is the best. Deb is the best. We go for the best," she shouts over the noise.

Caroline finished the song on a big note and the room went quiet except for the quiver of the piano. "My voice is shaky," Caroline said after a moment.

"No. That’s your vibrato," Debra Cook said. "That’s what it feels like."

Caroline’s mom explains to Debra Cook that the orthodontist put a device in Caroline’s mouth the day before to get her ready for braces. "A spacer," she said.

Uncomfortable orthodontics was no reason to miss practice in Caroline’s mind. The 12-year-old seventh grade at American Heritage Middle School has missed only a few lessons since she started taking three years ago. "There’s been maybe once or twice in three years she’s wanted to take a break," Tiffany Wagner said. "I asked her this summer if she wanted one and she said no."

Caroline’s voice lesson finished and her piano teacher entered, ready to rehearse "Jesus Take the Wheel," the Carrie Underwood song, with Caroline. "I really like animals," Caroline tells him. "So I want to be a biologist."


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