AARP-sponsored piano lessons help ease stress, provide social outlet for students

mmeehan1@herald-leader.comMarch 12, 2014 

  • mUsiKcare

    What: A 10-week, group piano class, $225, some scholarships are available. Class size is limited to six.

    Online: or call (859) 257-2863.

Phyllis Giberson was ready to let death take her. She was ready to lie down on the couch and wait for her Stage 4 ovarian cancer to run its lethal course.

Then her partner, who had other plans, signed her up for group piano lessons.

"I think she was tired of dealing with me," Giberson said with a grin Tuesday as she set up some sheet music for a group lesson.

It seems like a small thing, an hour a week learning to play piano with other like-minded women of a certain age. But somehow, ...

"I was lifted up," Giberson said.

Laughing about her dour attitude when she began, Giberson, 62, admitted that she came to class the first few times out of more a sense of obligation that enthusiasm. Then, she said, something kicked in. Now, when she feels the tug of self-pity coming on, she tickles the ivories and it buoys her soul.

"Even if it is just my chords over and over and over again," she said. "It has made a vast difference in my energy level and in my life."

Teacher Vicki McVay agrees: "You are not the same person you were when you came in here," she said.

It's hard to quantify transformation, but McVay and Lori Gooding, who helped create the course, said they hope they can replicate Giberson's experience with others.

The class — mUsiKcare — began last summer with group piano lessons for adults ages 50 and older. Sponsored by a grant from the AARP, the classes target people 50 and older in part because that is the age for joining AARP but also because older people learn in different ways.

For instance, McVay said, older players have an expectation of how they'd like to sound. They might not have the patience to practice finger exercises and the like.

The idea is to promote relaxation and stress reduction while training the players to create real, emotionally satisfying music, said Gooding, director of music therapy at the University of Kentucky.

On Tuesday, the class at the UK's Fine Arts building began with a short meditation. "Imagine you are walking on the beach," graduate assistance Erin Batkiewcz purred as a jazzy melody filled the room. McVay joined her students as they breathed deeply and did some mild stretching before tackling some improvisation.

Discordant, and not in a good way, is the best way to describe the first few seconds of improv, but soon student Deb Martin, 58, was plucking keys like a virtuoso and swaying to her own internal song.

"Stimulation and stress management" is the reason Martin likes the class. Martin, who is caring for her elderly mother, said music was a constant companion during her high school and middle school years. She even thought of majoring in music in college. But she choose a practical career, nursing, and renewed her passion for playing after she retired.

Music allows her to block out all her other concerns and live in a tuneful moment, she said.

Music theory is part of the equation that engages the brain as well as the fingers. McVay encourages students to listen to the "mind's ear" and tinker with chord progressions or flourishes that would make standard pieces unique works that are their own variation.

They also are urged to try new things.

"You've got to be willing to fail," McVay told the class. "If not, you will never know what you can do."

Group lessons provide not only a musical release but social engagement, McVay said. The women were all fairly reserved when they began, but over the course of the 10-week class, they become engaged with one another, check in on each other during the week and ask about what's going on in each other's lives.

"We really wanted to bring that community aspect back. That social side is so important," McVay said.

The classes are a way of forming a supportive community, she said, and it empowers the students to do something enjoyable and satisfying.

McVay and Gooding said they hope to extend the class to other groups of people coping with stress and isolation, such as the disabled. They flew to San Diego on Wednesday for the National Aging in America conference, where they will be featured presenters, talking about the class and hoping to find leads on additional grant money.

Giberson, for her part, has gotten more than her money's worth.

"I've learned it is OK to just play and play," she said.

Mary Meehan: (859) 231-3261. Twitter: @bgmoms. Blog:

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