Music lessons are striking the right note with adults


April 16, 1995|By Glenn McNatt

Mario Russell is sitting at the piano in Marjorie Liss' fourth-floor studio at the preparatory school of the Peabody Institute listening intently to the viola part in the piece he is working on with fellow student Paula Merkle.

"How do you count it?" Ms. Liss asks Ms. Merkle. Ms. Liss opens her eyes very wide, and the two pairs of incredibly long black lashes leap apart like a dozen tiny question marks.

Ms. Merkle, the violist, seems nonplused. She stares at the music in front of her and silently moves her lips as she works out the rhythm in her head. She is concentrating so hard little worry lines appear on her brow.

"Let's take it from the last bar, where was that, letter G?" says Ms. Liss. "And a-one, and a-two, and . . ."

The players go through the passage again, this time continuing to the end of the piece. It is a sweet melody. As the last chord dies away Mr. Russell, a lawyer, seems thoughtful. He has a dreamy expression on his face.

Ms. Merkle, who in her other life is also a lawyer, puts down her viola and wrinkles her brow again.

The expression in her eyes says that this is really hard work. Fun, but really, really hard.

"Of course it's harder for adults," Ms. Liss says after the class is over. A pixieish figure in her early 50s, Ms. Liss has been teaching music to older students at the Peabody Prep for more than three decades.

She has been at it so long and so consistently that now, at a time when more and more adults are taking up music as an avocation, she can justly claim to have been something of a pioneer in the field of continuing education.

Although hard figures are difficult to come by, music educators say there is little doubt that the number of adults studying music as a hobby has increased significantly in recent years.

Adults comprise about a quarter of the 2,682 students at Peabody Prep, for example, up from 15 percent of the enrollment 20 years ago. Back then most adults who did return to music after giving it up as children studied piano and voice. Today piano and voice are still popular, but adults are studying virtually every instrument, from woodwinds to strings, harpsichord, organ and balalaika.

Outside of Peabody, there are literally hundreds of instrumental and voice teachers listed in phone directories in the Baltimore-Washington region, many of whom work primarily with older students.

It is a trend that seems driven by many factors, including increased leisure time, higher disposable incomes and a double demographic bulge of successful baby boomers seeking respite from the stress of high-powered careers and seniors looking for ways to occupy their retirement years.

To accommodate all these new students, community music programs have sprung up all over the Baltimore-Washington region. They range from free choral groups and church choirs to YMCA and senior citizens' programs to university music departments and conservatory-level courses at places like Peabody Prep.

Though the programs vary widely in quality and cost, the sheer increase in the availability of music instruction for adults shows that institutions at all levels are reacting to the new demand.

"In 1973, I had two or three adult students," said Ms. Liss. "Today I have over 40. The biggest change I see seems to be that it's

become more acceptable for grown-ups to take music lessons. We are in a time when people seem to think it's OK to nurture oneself with the kind of experience that music provides."

And by all accounts, Ms. Liss is extremely good at what she does. Her pupils include doctors, lawyers, college professors and government officials as well as housewives, computer technicians and cabdrivers.

"Adults are so much more fragile than children," Ms. Liss explains. "They have such different needs and they require a different approach to teaching. That's my life work."

"She is just a fantastic teacher," says Hilda Ford, the state director of personnel during the administration of Gov. William Donald Schaefer. Ms. Ford has studied piano with Ms. Liss for four years. "If it wasn't for her," she says, "I probably would have been a very frustrated pupil."

Ms. Ford, who retired a little over a year ago, now devotes almost all her spare time to music. Like many adult students, she began playing as a child but gave it up to make time for a career and raising a family.

"In all my years of working life, money was the motivator," she says. "I was good at it but it didn't give me the kind of inner satisfaction I get from music. Music gives me a kind of spiritual fulfillment, a release from preoccupation with externals. It represents a kind of freedom from the stresses of the jobs I have held, and it is available to me whenever I sit down at the piano."

Katie Cheng, an assistant brand manager for Procter & Gamble Co. who moved to Baltimore from Connecticut a few months ago, says she is grateful for the class because it has encouraged her to continue what has been a lifetime involvement with the piano.

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