“When I first stepped foot on the island of Unalaska in March 1996, I hadn’t the slightest intention of teaching piano lessons on the island. My contract as a pianist for the island’s Grand Aleutian hotel was for 10 weeks. The unpaved roads were muddy and unpaved, ruining my city shoes, squirting dots of gray mud from my heels in a backward stripe that went up from my ankles to my knees with every step…”
My employer greeted me on the tarmac and as we waited for my bags to be dropped on the ground with everyone else’s, and his smile was warm as he suggested that the island sure could use a piano teacher if I wanted to make a little money on the side. I smiled, not taking him seriously. But, two weeks later, I received my first phone call from a local asking if I’d teach her child piano during my short visit. I accepted.
Teaching piano in the Aleutian Islands, 800 sea miles from the nearest city, is a mixed bag of extraordinary challenges and great rewards. Like others teaching in remote areas, I am among the privileged that can say they are the only professional piano teacher within a radius of several hundred miles. That distinction has its advantages and its responsibilities. Without a doubt, teaching in a remote area can be a full and rich experience.
Regardless of where a piano studio is located, certain elements need to be in place to provide a stable and effective learning environment for the instrument. It’s well documented that studies using an in-tune acoustic piano, preferably a grand (or even better, two) is essential. Any pedagogy textbook will provide a good list of essential studio items. But what if those things are not present? Does one simply write off a community or group of potential musicians just because the recommended environment is not there?
No. First and foremost, the most valuable “item” in the piano studio is the Teacher who possesses the passion for music and the desire to share it.
Relocating to a rural environment is a drastic change for most, especially if they are more accustomed to teaching in the city. Unless there is a community center, church or other business with a piano and permission to use it, one is relegated to teaching either in their own living space, or commuting to each student’s home. Either way, developing positive, honest relationships is imperative, especially when living in communities far from other settled areas. As the new face in town, one’s actions are measured, reputation is based on the groundwork laid from the beginning. Often times newcomers are viewed with curiosity, even suspicion. As people see consistency, positivity, and innovativeness, doors begin to open and trust is established. These open doors can work out to one’s advantage.
In 1996, the community center director looked surprised. “You’ve been walking to your lessons every afternoon for three months in this weather carrying that backpack full of music? It’s blowing 50mph outside! Let’s get together with the school on this. I have a storage room at the center that you can use for lessons, and the school music teacher will let you use the upright piano they haven’t been using. We can squeeze you between the shelves.”
Piano teachers in populated areas have expectations and requirements for their students and facilities. Not so, for the rural piano teacher. Perhaps there are few or no resources, slow or no internet, (making Skype lessons impossible) rare if any live performances of music, supply shopping required by mail order only? It is up to the solitary rural piano teacher to be the innovator, the cheerleader, the artist, and for many, the one who defines, for their community, what piano lessons –and music appreciation- are. We learn in in our study of pedagogy, and through experience, to hold our standards high and run our businesses in a professional manner. Even so, the road can be long and even lonely.
In 1998, single and lonely, I left the island and relocated to Seattle after nearly two years establishing the island’s first active community pianostudio. One parent flew with her children 1200 miles to Seattle on occasion for a lesson with me, while piano savvy friends and a 12 year old mentor took over my Unalaska island studio. Twice, I returned to the island to teach piano for a one week visit. In 2002, the Aleutian Arts Council hired me to present a community concert. A former parent of a student approached me, asked me to please return permanently to teach her daughter piano again.
Refusing, I reminded her that Unalaska was a hard and lonely place for me, a single woman, to live. The parent understood. The next day, she brought her single brother to my concert performance in hopes that I would like him, marry him, and return to teach her daughter. We will celebrate our 15th wedding anniversary in 2017.
One of the most beneficial business connections the rural piano teacher can make is that of the state MTNA organization or other music teacher’s association. If at all possible it is beneficial to attend at least the annual state conference as well as the national conference. Cost will be an issue for most. I cannot stress enough how important it is for rural piano teachers, especially those teaching alone, to save funds for these events. Even those who thrive on independence can benefit from the steady stream of new information available from interacting with other professionals.
Perhaps these colleagues are hundreds of miles away, but thanks to Facebook and social media, relationships may develop. For example, in the state of Alaska, many teachers are in remote areas and unable to attend regular meetings. (I have started a closed group called Alaska Piano Teachers which includes only those teaching in America’s largest state yet with one of the smallest populations. We are very widespread and often alone.) Interactive websites like iPianoteacher.com offer insights, information, incentives, connection to organizations, available products and music, even for free music and teaching resources on the website. There are even forums in which any teacher may participate in relevant discussions on subjects helpful to piano teachers anywhere..
Success takes time and patience, willingness to give a lot and receive humbly from a community. As for our little piano studio in the storage closet, it received a 5’7 grand piano donated by my husband and myself in 2007. In 2011 the City of Unalaska facilitated a major renovation, and the little studio was replaced with a large community music room with two professional practice rooms, a vaulted ceiling, and large sealed windows overlooking the city and mountains beyond. The piano recitals are filmed by the local television station and featured as holiday presentations every year at Christmas and in the spring time. As technology develops, so do opportunities which will involve better internet hence more intercommunication via the web. The future holds many new developments which bring us all closer together. As for this little island studio which began on an island with muddy unpaved roads and a studio in a storage closet? I’m thrilled to share that a couple piano students over the years went on to become music majors, and many past students who are now adults enjoy the love for music and the study of music, some even sharing it with their own children, wherever in the world they are. That is, to me, success.
December 2016- I stood on the stage at the recital dress rehearsal and listened to the sandy blond five year old child confidently playing at the grand piano. The young mother sat in the front row, elbows on her knees, intently watching the child with an expression mixed with pride, gratitude, and a little bit of nervousness. Suddenly it occurred to me that exactly 20 years ago today this very woman was a six-year-old child sitting at this very piano on this very stage performing for our very first Unalaska piano recital! It was her mother that requested I return to teach her child, that had brought her brother to my concert hoping I would stay and teach piano lessons to the girl. And now, exactly twenty years later, one legacy comes full circle.