Close Encounters of the Keyboard Kind

“I had always wanted to play the piano but, for one reason or another, was never able to take lessons when I was a kid,” admits 42-year-old Carol Torresson, a certified health coach and executive assistant from Poughkeepsie, New York. “At 24 years old I just assumed that it was too late to start. But then my Dad (at age 44) began his Keyboards Encounters lessons and I realized that it is never too late to do something that you have always wanted to do. Almost 20 years later, I am still so grateful that I made the decision to join Keyboard Encounters.” Though they accept members as young as 10, the program has helped thousands like Torresson develop their musical creativity later in life.

Keyboard Encounters, Yamaha Corporation of America’s flagship group piano course, is currently celebrating its 20th Anniversary. “By challenging the misconception that you can’t learn to play piano as an adult, Keyboard Encounters has revolutionized the way piano is taught,” says Yamaha Keyboard Division Marketing Director Mark Anderson.

“We believe that everybody is innately musical,” says Keyboard Encounters Program Director Charles Anderson. The seeds for Keyboard Encounters were planted in 1990, when Yamaha developed the first digital piano and created a piano course around it. The initial program, developed by the Yamaha Music Education Division, consisted of 26 teachers and staff members who were deployed to 10 test markets around the country. “We videotaped every class for a year and a half,” he recalls. “It was an unbelievable amount of research.

Charles says that the key to the program is the belief that everyone has musical ability, and an understanding that adults know more than they think they do. “The whole idea was to work with the adults to draw them out—listen to a song and ask them what they hear and get them to talk about how they are hearing it. They hear and feel things like verses and refrains.”

Unlike traditional teaching methods, Keyboard Encounters isn’t hierarchy-based. “We don’t work from the premise, ‘We know everything, you know nothing,’” says Charles. “We’re saying, ‘You know a lot more than what you think.’ And that is the whole basis of Keyboard Encounters.”

The program is largely based on the Yamaha Clavinova because of its ability to provide accompaniment, create different orchestral sounds, and record. “Students can record onto the digital piano what they have learned each week,” says Charles. “Being able to archive their progress really pumps up the student.”

Torresson’s teacher, Becky Wirehouse, has been a Keyboard Encounters instructor at Vincitore’s Hudson Valley Piano Center in Poughkeepsie for almost 30 years. “Most of the adults who join Keyboard Encounters never had the opportunity to play when they were young, so they’re trying to fulfill a dream,” she says. It’s a program for adults and book one is designed for people with no musical experience.

“We do get adults who have played before and want to get back into it,” she says. “We adjust the pace of the learning according to their skills.” There’s also an understanding that many prospective students don’t want to play out of kids’ books, so the program is geared towards immediate musical satisfaction. “They go home the first week playing a piece, hands together, which is unheard of in traditional piano teaching.”

There is a small vetting process, if only to put people together according to their ability. “If I have someone who walks in and says, ‘I’ve had a little experience’ we’ll have them play so we can place them into a higher class,” she says. “But, in general, we start all beginners together in book one, and hopefully, a class that starts together, stays together.”

Another aspect that differentiates Keyboard Encounters from other piano courses is that students don’t use headsets. “A lot of group piano programs make the students wear headsets,” says Wirehouse. “The teacher cues in and listens to people individually. We don’t do that; we play like an orchestra—all together, at the same time.”

Students seem almost unanimous in their support of the group lesson platform and say that this dynamic contributes significantly to overall satisfaction. “First, it made the lessons more affordable when my budget was really tight,” says Torresson. “And second, it is a more light-hearted and less stressful environment. Each of us brings something different to the class and the diversity of personalities and music styles has broadened my appreciation of music in general.”

Torresson still takes lessons every week in the same class as her dad. “I love that we have that time together. My daughters have also now enrolled in the music school, so we have three generations taking lessons.”

Another of Wirehouse’s students, Vijay Dalal, 68, retired six years ago after working in various technical and management positions for IBM. “I now spend my time traveling, playing golf, skiing, playing Bridge, hiking, biking, going to concerts (mostly classical), and learning, listening to, and playing music,” he says.

An archetypal Keyboard Encounters student, Dalal always loved music, but never had the opportunity to learn or play. “About 20 years ago, I saw an ad for an introductory adult piano class while I was working very hard on my career,” he recalls. “I wondered if I could learn to read and play music at my age.”

Having invested in a piano for his son a couple of years earlier, he saw the four-week class as an opportunity to give it a try. “I started the class with Becky, and in those four weeks, I felt I was able to do more than I expected. I was hooked,” he says.

It is a similar story for 50-year-old software engineer Denise Mari. “Playing the piano was a childhood dream,” she says. “But we could not afford the lessons and a piano, nor did we have room for a piano, so I just gave up on that until adulthood.”

When she saw that adult lessons were offered, Mari went to check out a class. “I liked the idea of group lessons,” she admits. “With private lessons, the thought of having a piano instructor standing there breathing over your shoulder was not for me. Also, with private lessons, it seems you spend a lot of time on scales. With Keyboard Encounters, you are playing fun tunes right from the get-go.”

Students often continue long after they’ve completed the published curriculum. “We completed that decades ago,” says Torresson with a laugh. “Now it is a combination of music education, like chord structure, rhythm styles, and learning how to play various songs.” Sometimes the group chooses the music and other times the teacher. “I love that there are pieces of music that I would never have played on my own, but with Becky’s guidance and working on it with the group, I am able to play it.”

Dalal admits that he will probably never be a concert pianist, but that learning, practicing, and playing music can be very relaxing and rewarding. “After a long day at work, I would sit down at the piano, and after a half-hour I was completely relaxed,” he says, adding that he now plays complete pieces with expression and dynamics, and as a result of the classes, he has achieved far greater music appreciation. “I think learning and playing music significantly enriches lives and enables me to live life fully.”

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