Reminiscences of a long-time music teacher

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Article submitted by Laura Mazza-Dixon 

This year Windy Hill Guitar Studio celebrates 25 years of providing guitar lessons and classes for children and adults in the Farmington Valley.

When I look at the photo of students gathered beside the school bus acquired in 1992 to bring our young guitarists to the elementary schools for concerts during the school day; or the one of Rachel Orr, Rachel Rising and Alex Uhl, ages four and five, performing a holiday recital at the F.H. Cossitt Library back 1999, I cannot help but wonder where the years have gone.

Watching several generations of students learn to play well and be comfortable performing is the most obvious reward for a teacher. Watching the students grow up, go off to school, and start families and careers of their own is equally important.

Lee Fawber of Simsbury was one of the first students to graduate from high school as a Windy Hill student. She has served in the US Coast Guard for the past twenty years. Christian Colantonio, also of Simsbury, is studying to be a veterinarian in Utah. Dika Kuljis, of Granby, does post-graduate research in neurobiology in California. Alex Uhl, of Granby, is in his second year at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute studying Aeronautical Engineering.

Many students start as young as four years old and continue through high school graduation. We work together for 10, 12, or even 14 years—starting out from the beginning, counting and clapping rhythms, learning efficient practice skills, overcoming obstacles, setting small goals, reaching them, and then setting ever larger goals and reaching them.

Granby resident, Erin Keener, began when she was four year old, and is currently winning prizes through 4H for her seamstress skills and for goat rearing. She replied to a question about her experiences as a guitar student: What is your favorite thing about taking guitar lessons? “Learning new songs, which mean new challenges. When you get a sticker on a song indicating you have memorized it, you feel proud of yourself.”

Much has been written about the benefit to brain development from studying music at a young age. From my perspective, there are other benefits as well. For example, students who learn to play a musical instrument at a young age develop work habits through regular practicing that transfer to other pursuits.

Students who perform music often gain confidence in speaking and acting as well. The Windy Hill Ensemble programs that combine music, storytelling and poetry have been an introduction to the performing arts for many of the students.

Determination, effort and concentration are all qualities developed over many years of applying ourselves to an endeavor. So when long-time student, Emily Uhl, of Granby, won the Conn. State Title for Javelin in the Class M this month, I celebrated with her and her family. She was honored as a scholar-athlete at graduation from Granby Memorial High School this month. Since musicians are called “small-muscle athletes,” the fact that Emily also performed Antonio Vivaldi’s Concerto in D Major with the Windy Hill Baroque Ensemble at a concert at the East Granby Public Library this spring is remarkable. The concerto is a milestone for a classical guitarist, one both Emily and her brother Alex reached in their senior years at GMHS.

About half of Windy Hill’s students are adult musicians who learn a new instrument or maintain their skills on one they already play. New musical challenges create new neural networks in the brain, and strengthen the connections between the left and right halves of the brain, improving memory, analytical skills and intuition.

Sylvain Beloin has this to say about his study of the guitar: “I’ve always had great respect for musicians who create beautiful music that gives pleasure to people in many ways. Now I am becoming one.”

Bob Emery graduated from GMHS in 2004 and balanced a busy schedule of sports, academics and music. He studied mathematics at Bates College, took outdoor leadership training, and has worked with troubled youth in upstate New York. He is married, with a young child of his own. He said this of the lessons learned at Windy Hill:  I have used my guitar skills to ease my stress, to calm me when I need it. I have used the challenge of learning guitar when I face long-term challenges. I have used the lesson format, the interpersonal skills, and the relationship building when I work with at-risk teenagers.”

The satisfaction of seeing students learn to apply themselves to a challenging task and succeed, has proved to me that children and adults thrive in an atmosphere of encouragement and expectation and use that skill for a lifetime. I look forward to many years of beginning again and again with new children, new adults and new families.