VWES piano lab unique music program
DAVE MOSIER/independent editor
Computer labs? Just about every school has at least one. But piano labs? That’s another story. In fact, there’s just one piano lab in the state and it’s at Van Wert Elementary School.
Music teacher Susan Brubaker, who was the catalyst for the program, wrote a grant a decade ago requesting funds from The Van Wert County Foundation to purchase electronic pianos. The request was granted and the lab was first established at the former Horace Mann Elementary School.
“When we first had it at Horace Mann we had just a few pianos,” Brubaker said, adding that the lab was used only by Horace Mann second-graders when it began. “They (the pianos) were on the stage and I had to push them out and then push them back after class.”
When Horace Mann closed, the pianos went to Franklin, but still were only used by a relatively small number of second-graders at that school. That changed when Van Wert Elementary School was built.
“Before we moved here, I requested that, if we decided to keep the lab, I wanted to be able to do a whole class at a time,” Brubaker said, noting that teaching a smaller group of students would have been impractical with the new schedule implemented as part of the move to the new school.
She commended Superintendent Ken Amstutz for supporting the project and providing funds for the additional pianos needed to teach an entire class at one time. “We can accommodate 23 students at one time, and I have 23 students in my largest second grade class,” Brubaker explained.
Plans are to add this year’s second-grade class to the program next year, especially since this year’s second-graders only began piano lab classes after Christmas, due to equipment set-up and other problems. After third grade, students interested in music begin playing recorders and then move on to regular instruments.
Brubaker, who sees students once a week for piano lab, teaches them the basics: how to track notes, duration of the various notes and rhythm, mostly. In a few weeks, the students are able to play some simple songs.
Brubaker said that, while many students learn quickly, a few struggle with getting the beat or with tracking notes. “Some of them just have a little trouble tracking the notes, like reading,” she said, adding that the skills used in tracking notes are similar to those used in reading.
The students use headphones most of the time, so the pianos are silent to anyone watching the class play, although Brubaker can listen in with her headphones to see how they’re doing. Students also use an “air piano” technique to demonstrate whether they know the fingering for a piano scale or piece.
“Most of them know about ‘air guitar’ so we use ‘air piano’ so I can see how they’re doing with the notes,” Brubaker noted.
Most students learn fairly quickly, she said. “They’re getting it,” Brubaker said. “When I went around and listened, most of them were playing it perfectly.”
The program also fosters an interest in music for some students — and generates excitement in even more. “It’s a neat thing; at lunch, I hear them say: ‘we’ve got piano today!’” Brubaker said. “They’re really excited.”
The music teacher also noted that it’s not unusual for students who have taken the piano lab earlier to continue with formal piano lessons. “I’ve had kids come back and say, ‘I’m taking piano lessons,’” Brubaker said, adding that other students retain note values and other information learned in the classes years after they complete the lab — even when they don’t take any other music classes.
Meanwhile, in an era of increasing school funding cuts, Van Wert’s support for the VWES piano lab is a testament to the district’s efforts to provide an enhanced educational environment for students.