Have you ever walked past a piano or organ store and heard a demonstration or seen a display of new digital models and wished you could play? Perhaps you used to be a pianist, but gave it up when work and kids took all your time, or, like Floridian Ray Wilson, perhaps your desire to play was outweighed by a feeling that you’re not “musical” enough. It may be time to put that thought to rest, as Ray, 74, and his wife BJ, 66, did when they signed up at Piano Distributors of Sarasota for a Yamaha Clavinova Connection group class for digital piano. Clavinova Connection, Lowrey Magic, and Club Roland are new group instructional methods for anyone who wants to make music, regardless of ability. These programs also offer mature adults a chance to stay active in retirement.
“We tried retirement, but I was going crazy,” says Ray, who now works as a picture framer in Venice, Florida after a career as a mechanical designer for an aircraft technology company. BJ also continues to work full time as a medical transcriptionist, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have time for a hobby. “The trouble is, down here, everyone assumes you are retired, and most adult classes are in the daytime,” explains Ray. That’s why evening Clavinova Connection sessions are especially important to the couple, who often enjoy the piano group after work, before going out to dinner.
Someone Like Me
Ray also enjoys how Clavinova Connection welcomed a self-described “non-musician.” “It’s a great program for someone like me, who wants to fiddle around with music,” Ray observes. He used to play trumpet in high school band but now prefers just to have fun. “My wife used to play piano, so she takes it a little more seriously, practicing at home quite often,” he says. For Ray, one of the most important benefits of playing piano as a hobby is the relaxation it affords after a long day at work. “It’s an enjoyable thing to do, and a hobby that you get a lot out of,” he says. “We’ve also met wonderful people through this program,” he adds.
The facilitator of Piano Distributors’ Clavinova Connection is Erik Shepard. One of the first in the country, Shepard reports his year-old program is going strong. “We’re a way to bridge the gap for people who’ve wanted to play music their whole lives, but were afraid, let’s say, of the piano or the old-fashioned teachers,” he laughs. Shepard’s group classes are a world away from the traditional picture of a piano lesson. “There’s a teaching piano connected to eight student pianos,” Shepard explains. “When I play, Follow Lights technology makes the students’ piano keys light up so they can follow along.” Students love the program, Shepard says, because the Clavinova is a versatile instrument that becomes a drum machine, a backup orchestra, or an at-home tutor, all at the touch of a button.
Learning by Doing
You could say Fran Orndorff is the kind of student a teacher loves. Not only does she do her homework, she’s often up at the crack of dawn practicing, with a little help from technology provided by her Roland Atelier digital organ, including custom CDs of songs she’s learning in class and headphones for silent practice. “Often I get up at 5 a.m., while my husband is still sleeping, go downstairs to the Atelier, put my headphones on, and do my exercises,” she says.
Orndorff, 68, had just returned from her group class and had her new practice disc already loaded in the organ, when she shared her experiences in the Club Roland instructional program for the Atelier. “I’m taking a new class built around Christmas songs. We’re learning ‘Silver Bells,’ ‘Frosty the Snowman,’ and a lovely Willie Nelson song called ‘Pretty Paper,’” she explains.
Orndorff first started taking group digital organ classes when she moved from Virginia to a central Florida retirement community called The Villages. Although she had taken organ lessons before, she hadn’t discovered anything quite like Club Roland. “It’s a completely different way to learn the instrument, and all the people you meet are really nice,” says Orndorff, who has encouraged many of her friends to sign up as well. “It’s really a lot of fun,” she adds.
Aside from the obvious social benefit of making new friends, Orndorff echoes what many experts are saying about the health benefits of taking up music making later in life. “It is very good for your health,” says Orndorff. “You keep your memory sharp because you have to remember songs, and your esteem is helped by learning and accomplishing new things, too.” The health benefits of the program are also felt by Fran’s husband, Don, 75, who is recovering from heart surgery. Don joined organ classes to help his rehabilitation. “Don and I are quite busy. We go square dancing and ballroom dancing, but he’s having a lot of fun playing organ,” Orndorff says.
The Club Roland classes Orndorff enjoys are held at Showtime Keyboards, in Summerfield, Florida. Program Director Staci Carter runs 11 separate hour-long, once-a-week classes, often starting at 10 a.m. “We attract everybody from former schoolteachers to retired corporate executives,” she says. “One of the advantages of this program is that group lessons are interactive and promote better learning. Plus, in a group setting the teacher isn’t constantly breathing down your neck!” Carter’s “learn by doing” approach uses fun activities to get students playing songs from day one. She says some people who show interest in playing the organ initially resist her classes because of preconceptions about what it means to learn a musical instrument. “You do have Doubting Thomases,” she admits, “but I tell them there’s safety in numbers. Lessons are light-paced and less stressful compared to traditional music lessons, which often drill you on more music theory than you’ll ever need.”
Magic and Medicine
Manufacturer Lowrey has developed another group organ method. Called Lowrey Magic, the program began in 1995 at distributors such as the Piano & Organ Center in Clay, New York, one of the first dealerships to host the program. In fact, owner Bob Carbone helped edit the 12 teaching books the program uses. “What makes this method work,” says Carbone, “is that it makes playing organ a hobby. It gives people permission to play and have fun in a supportive, welcoming setting.”
Over the years, Carbone has seen many social, physical, and psychological benefits through Lowrey Magic. “We’ve had weddings and cured bouts of depression,” says Carbone, who enjoys showing participants the “bigger picture” of recreational music making. “People think making music is something they can’t do. We show them what fun it is,” he explains.
Two people having fun making music in the Lowrey Magic program are the Wheelers: Dick, 67, and Patricia, 61, of Brewerton, New York. They’ve played in the program for three years. “My wife and I were shopping when we took a shortcut through the Piano & Organ Center,” Dick says, recalling how he got into the program. “Salesman Wayne Skinner was playing an organ, and I stopped to look. I’d always wanted to play an instrument, but never got around to it. Wayne explained how easy it was through the Lowrey program.” Pretty soon Wheeler, who had tried his hand at banjo and guitar in the past, bought a Lowrey organ, and he and his wife signed up for the class.
Previously published in Jan. 2005.