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Senior citizens still learning through music

By Kelli Willier

Beautiful tunes, sweet to the ears, ring through the hallways of CPCC’s Sloan-Morgan building. In small, boxed-sized rooms, musicians and vocalists practice their pieces. In one of the rooms sit two ladies, side-by-side on one piano bench. Twenty fingers, one set of keys, one beautiful melody.

Their appearance is just as different as the ebony and ivory on which they strike. Only the backs of their heads can be seen through the window of the tiny practice room. One has long, midnight black hair, the other, short and white as a winter snowfall.

Raegan Smith, 24, and Alma Webb, 92, are practicing for their piano ensemble class recital April 24. They will be playing a duet called “Lillibulero.”

Webb is one of several senior citizen students currently enrolled in classes at CPCC. According to online enrollment statistics, during the 2004-05 school year, 5827 students over the age of 51 were registered for classes.

Webb began taking classes at CPCC in 1976. She has taken several different classes during these years and has taken piano ensemble, taught by Beverly Russell, repeatedly. Students over 65 do not pay tuition. Webb, however, has taken it so many times that this semester she had to pay. “I had to pay, but it was well worth it,” she said.

Webb comes to CPCC every Tuesday and Thursday faithfully, for her piano ensemble class. Her daughter, Shirley, provides transportation.

“I like the people I play with,” said Webb. Being around people who have a similar interest is nice, she added.

Beverly Russell, piano ensemble instructor, said she has many seniors in her class. Webb is the oldest and the most diligent, she added.

Russell explains that piano playing is a “wonderful skill” for older individuals to accomplish. “It pulls in so many aspects of the brain that have to function,” said Russell. They have to be able to read music, rhythm and fingerings she said. They also have to coordinate the pedal and be aware of their synchronizing partner.

Piano playing can become more challenging as individuals age, explained Russell. Visual problems get in the way and they get “slower at reading the notes,” she said.

While practicing with Raegan Smith, Webb stops, rubs her eyes and explains to Russell that the notes seem to float off the page. “My piano days are getting worse,” she said.

According to Russell, the seniors who are enrolled in her class take their work very seriously. “They are very critical of themselves,” she explained. “They don’t feel good if they don’t do well.”

Flo Poe, piano ensemble student, also practices for the April 24 recital in a separate classroom. The 80-year-old student focuses hard on the music and complains to Russell that she is concerned about turning the page in the music book while playing.

She explains that the piece they are playing for the recital “sounds like a bunch of mistakes.” Poe plays along-side three other students during the selected piece, “Skip To My Lou and Others, Too.”

Poe has been taking classes at CPCC since the early eighties. Her father gave her a $100 bill to register for music classes, she explained. Since then she has taken almost every class in the music department besides music theory, which she hopes to register for soon.

Poe says she takes the classes at CPCC to have something to do. “I get to play with other people on my level,” she explained.

Registering for classes can also pose a challenge for many seniors explained Donna Ward, visual arts instructional office assistant. Many seniors are “computer illiterate,” she added. Most of them have no access to computers at home so they register by phone or in-person.

Poe had her daughter-in-law help her register once and had Russell do it for her in the past as well. “With all the other things I can do, like play the piano, I am not sitting in front of a computer.”

When it comes to instructing the seniors in class, Russell has to be very patient. “I try to be more relaxed and not as persistent when they encounter problems,” she explained. “I try to encourage them as much as possible.”

The piano ensemble class, which Webb and Poe are currently taking, is not a class for beginners. Russell explains that all the students have had some piano classes in the past. She explains that if the skills are kept up throughout life, students do not “lose very much.”

Webb does not consider herself a “musician.” She holds notes for as long as she can. “When I do get a note, I want to hang onto it.” And in regards to the pedal, she giggles again and says, “I put it down when I want to, not when the music says to.”