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Composing a Legacy through Music

Written by Ben Koester

As I think back over my life, I can hear music accompanying most of my major memories. Whether I am driving through Georgia to Rascal Flatts, chilling in the Smokies with Billy Joel, or traveling west to NeedtoBreathe, music has played a significant role in my life. So it wasn’t surprising when I learned that I enjoyed playing music myself. Although neither of my parents had any musical training, at six years old they signed me up for piano lessons and I took off with it! I have played the piano whole-heartedly ever since. I’ve played Rachmaninoff and Mozart, Billy Joel and Ed Sheeran, Disney and Zimmer. The piano became a way for me to relieve stress, enjoy myself, and entertain others. To this day it is a reliable way to lift my spirits, so I naturally wanted to pass this gift on to others.

My sophomore year of high school my piano teacher introduced me to a place called the Joy of Music School in downtown Knoxville. The mission of the school is to provide free musical instruction to underprivileged students who wouldn’t be able to afford it otherwise. Upon becoming an instructor, I was assigned two Guatemalan sisters, ages 7 and 9, with whom I could share my passion for piano. We began by learning chords, scales, note names, and how to properly sit at the piano. Three years and college enrollment later, I still teach these same girls every Thursday.

Now, in addition to sharing my passion, volunteering the school offers me an opportunity to put my classroom concepts into practice. Through participation in the Honors Leadership Program, I have learned about leadership philosophy, ethics, and strategies that apply to my teaching position. For one, it is of paramount importance as a teacher to inspire a shared vision between you and your student. Students need to see where they are headed to want to put in the effort to get there. It can be tedious work for young students to spend such a long period learning a song. Students must work the different hands individually before slowly putting them together to play a complete piece. As their teacher, I must inspire them each week to continue practice and put in the effort required to excel at playing their instrument.

It is also critical that I create a climate that is conducive to learning. For the first few weeks and even months of our lesson, both of my students were nervous and shy around me. They answered my questions with short nods and averted eyes. In order to build a better learning environment, I began bringing in a piano note guessing card game. My youngest student expressed the strongest reaction. She suddenly became engaged in each week’s lesson and her first words to me were always about whether or not I had brought “the cards”. In response to her enthusiasm, I converted other aspects of my teaching into games, including teaching rhythm by alternating between counting in English and counting in Spanish. Eventually, I began hearing stories about siblings, learning the names of their teachers, and looking at their pictures from art class. Creating a climate where these students were comfortable enough around me to enjoy the process of learning has been a constant effort during our lessons.

Ultimately, my service at the Joy of Music School represents my leadership legacy in the eyes of my students. I love to hear them introduce me as their “Teacher, Mr. Ben, who teaches my piano” and I take pride the progress they have made as pianists. I also get to encourage them and congratulate them in non-musical aspects of their lives. We talk about their upcoming choir concerts and I encourage them through standardized testing. With the added responsibilities of being a college student, it can be hard to motivate myself to keep going every week, but in the end, I want to make a difference in the lives of my students. While the tunes they can peck out now may sound overly simple and unimpressive to an outside observer, the benefit these students have gained from playing cannot be overstated. Playing the piano transcends any situation the player finds themselves in. No matter what your mood or situation the piano provides a way to release and recharge. Each week I have the joy of watching as piano makes a material, physical, emotional, and spiritual difference in the lives of my students.