Friday, January 16, 2009

First Lutheran Church offering free piano lessons


With donated pianos and teachers willing to volunteer, classes available to children who otherwise couldn't afford lessons

Jay Kirschenmann

When the piano teacher asks her class of beginners to use their left hands to find the black notes, a little girl in back takes a long look at both of her hands, pondering which one to use.

"Now I want you to use fingers No. 2 and 3 on your left hand to find two black notes that are next to each other," Dorothy Christopherson tells her class of 8- to 12-year-olds.

Annalee Pellicotte, 8, of Sioux Falls is in the back row and can barely see over her "Alfred's Basic Piano" book.

She quickly follows her classmates' lead and uses the correct hand to set her pointer and middle fingers playing. Annalee is among the latest class of kids taking free lessons at First Lutheran Church.

"This is the first day for this session, and I did notice she was pretty short back there," Christopherson later says of the second-grader. "We'll move her up front next week."

A family in the church recently donated the eight new Roland digital pianos and provides a fund for their ongoing maintenance, says Michael Elsbernd, the church director of music ministry and head of the piano lab.

The lessons are designed to reach students who otherwise would not be able to afford private piano instruction, he says.
Annalee's mom appreciates the lessons.

"I started piano lessons for a short time when I was younger and wish I would have continued," says Stacy Pellicotte of Sioux Falls. "I love the sound of the piano, so when I heard about the program, I called and got her in."

"I've found that the majority of students, for the most part, do well between third and fourth grades," Elsbernd tells Pellicotte, "although I do have two second-graders in my class, and they're both doing pretty well."

The three piano teachers are Elsbernd, Christopherson and Hazel Wek. They all volunteer their time on alternate days, giving lessons on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Successful students may continue taking lessons through their high school years, Elsbernd said.

Diana Stricheus, 12, says she's having fun.
"I'm taking lessons because I like to sing, and I like music," she says.

Shaylah Motley, 8, says she likes to "fool around" with her cousin's piano.
"I want to learn how to play a song, to play something on it," she says.

Debbie Garcia of Sioux Falls says it's the second 10-week session for her son, Pedro Garcia. She's not a church member.

"He likes it. After his first lesson, he came running up and played a little air piano for me," Garcia said. "I'm absolutely thrilled with the lessons. I'm a single mom and may not have been able to afford lessons otherwise and am glad he gets the chance to try it."

Peggy and Larry Hofmeister of Sioux Falls dropped off their granddaughter, Taelyn Phillips, 10, for a recent 45-minute Thursday lesson.

"She had lessons for about a year but has been off for a while, so we thought we would get her back in," Larry says, pausing outside the classroom door.

"She wants to be like Hannah Montana," he says, referring to the Disney Channel TV series about a girl who lives a double life as a rock star and average schoolgirl.

"We want her to have some musical experience," Peggy says. "I think this is a wonderful ministry they offer, and they have a beautiful church - we're not members."

After students make a few finger runs up and down the black keys, counting the groups of two and three, Christopherson takes the children into the hall to play a quick rhythm and motion game. After the children leave, she walks the room checking the pianos.

"They catch on fast, and they are anxious to learn, that's for sure," she says. Christopherson once taught a college piano course years ago, but this is the only other time she has tackled a group setting during her 45 years of experience.

"It is a challenge to make sure they're all with you," Christopherson says. "Like some of the students, this is my first day here, too."

Elsbernd says the class might be unusual for a church to offer, but it's something his church wanted to try as a community outreach project.

"I think It's pretty unique, and we're proud of how it's gone so far," he says.
Reach reporter Jay Kirschenmann at 331-2312.

Additional Facts

About the program

First Lutheran Church, 327 S. Dakota Ave., has filled its three free piano lesson classes for this school year. Find out about future registration from Michael Elsbernd, director of music ministry and head of the piano lab: 339-1983, ext. 14.