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Music lessons enrich lives of adult piano students in Powell River

“I had never learned how to read music before and it’s just opened my eyes up to so many things I wouldn’t have thought possible.” ~ Sean Dees

Two adult piano students say it’s never too late to start playing music.

Sara Mitchell-Banks and Sean Dees both study at Powell River Academy of Music and have found the experience to be life-enriching.

Mitchell-Banks said part of the inspiration to pick up piano was that she wanted to keep her brain working.

“I’ve always been fascinated with music and thought it was a mystery how people actually played a piano,” said Mitchell-Banks. “I went onto YouTube for about a year and tried to do it myself. Then, I signed up at the academy of music and I’ve been taking lessons for two years now.”

Mitchell-Banks said learning to play piano was one of those deep desires that people can have.

“I always wished I had been musical,” she said. “I’m artful in some ways in that I can paint, but learning a new language and being able to produce a sound that is pleasurable to myself, and most of all, to other people, I thought would be like a superpower. I envy people who are able to do that.”

Learning to play piano is a lot of hard work, said Mitchell-Banks, but there are moments when she is playing, she hears herself make something beautiful, especially when her instructor Walter Martella is sitting and playing with her.

“That gives me a lot of encouragement when we are playing together and he’s adding something to make it really sound like music,” said Mitchell-Banks. “It sort of makes my heart soar and pound a little bit. Maybe I’m getting somewhere with it.

“There are some times when I have been playing when I’ve been able to hear the feelings that I was feeling.”

Mitchell-Banks has been dabbling with the classics and said for example, there are simplified versions of the works of composers like Beethoven. She also loves Cat Stevens’ “Morning Has Broken”, so she’s learning a version of that, and “Sunrise, Sunset”, from Fiddler on the Roof. She said there’s a lot of books now for adult beginners.

Mitchell-Banks is an advocate of taking instruction from someone such as Martella.

“It’s an enjoyable half hour,” she said. “He always makes me feel like I’m moving forward.”

Mitchell-Banks tries to practice regularly and she said the better she gets at it, the more she enjoys it.

“Sometimes it feels like when you are trying to read music and play it, it does feel like you’re stepping out into space, and that, I think, is the physiological process of the brain creating new neural pathways. Brains are dynamic and you can actually grow parts of your brain.”

Learning to play piano has been a very enjoyable experience for Mitchell-Banks.

“My half hour lesson is one of my most joyous 30 minutes every week,” she said. “I’d recommend it to anybody.”

PRISMA inspires lessons

Dees was inspired to take up piano in adulthood because he was a director with the Pacific Regional International Summer Music Association (PRISMA) and he was so inspired by the music they were playing that he wanted to try and do something himself.

“I’ve never been a musician,” said Dees. “I had very low expectations. I was hoping to play “Happy Birthday” and maybe a Christmas carol because I have friends who do Christmas music every year. I was hoping to accompany them because up until now I was stuck with the egg shaker. I thought it would be nice to try something bigger.”

He thought hard about what would be the best instrument to play – flute, guitar or piano, and decided on piano.

Dees has been playing for about two and a half years and tried to start on his own, but he discovered he really needed someone to help him, encourage him and keep him on task.

“I had never learned how to read music before and it’s just opened my eyes up to so many things I wouldn’t have thought possible,” said Dees. “I’ve gone way further than the ‘Happy Birthday’ and the Christmas carols that I thought I’d play.

“One of my aha moments was when I was practicing scales for weeks and weeks and I was doing one of the Christmas carols, which called for triads, and my hands were just forming the triads without even thinking about it because I’d been practicing. The muscle memory started to develop.”

While he misses the occasional day of practice, Dees said some days he is inspired and practices for two or four hours, just because he is so into playing. Even so, learning to read music has been a complex process and he still struggles with it, but he has advanced way beyond his wildest expectations.

At the time of his interview, Dees was in the process of preparing for a recital at the academy of music. His selections include “Yesterday” by the Beatles and “Inter-City Stomp” by Christopher Norton. He said they are both fairly short pieces. When his instructor Ildiko Kelly asked him to play last year, Dees said “not a chance,” but he feels fairly comfortable this year that he can get through the selections.

Similar to Mitchell-Banks, Dees enjoys the classics, along with popular music. Advancing in his musical pursuit is revelatory because he never thought he was musical at all.

“I’ve had family and friends throughout the years tell me I’d never be musical,” said Dees. “I had pretty much given up on it. Now, it’s something I can do. If I can do it, anyone can. If you spend some time on it, just a little bit every day, you will develop.”

Mitchell-Banks said she feels fortunate that Powell River has the academy of music and mentioned how important the institute is in the community.

“Having a professional instructor like Ildiko or Walter can really take you a long way,” said Mitchell-Banks. “For the amount of money it costs, it’s the deal of the century.”