It was Parade Day in Ellicott City when a lost Olenka Stasyshyn Bren first meandered down Main Street. She immediately fell in love with the row of quaint shops and interesting passersby.
Trained as a concert pianist in Ukraine, Bren came to the United States at age 26 not speaking a word of English. After teaching in a private school for three years in South Dakota (“I was a mute piano teacher!”), Bren headed to the East Coast to meet up with her family in Maryland. It was during that trip she discovered what remained of the music school on Historic Main Street, Ellicott City.
“I stumbled across this space, just a room with some tables and chairs next to the public restroom, but I decided to take it over,” recalls Bren. Saxophone instructor Bruce Coates and his students were all that remained of Ellicott Square School of Music (later renamed Olenka School of Music), and Bren was determined to re-establish it as a musical education center.
“I bought a grand piano and would sit there playing as people walked past me on the way to the restroom. That’s how I got my first five students, then the next week it was 20, and pretty soon I had more than 100,” says Bren.
What started as a self-proclaimed “one-woman band” in September 1993 blossomed into a music school for children (and their parents) of all ages and skill levels. Bren has recruited a staff of instructors who specialize in a variety of instruments. Although the school has since outgrown its space on Main Street, it maintains a location in Ellicott City along with a studio in Columbia and classes held in several satellite locations.
Special events and promotions throughout the year have helped mark the school’s 20th anniversary. Free trial classes, for instance, will continue through October.
While reflecting on the school’s past, Bren and company also have embraced the anniversary to look to the future by “revamping our image,” according to Bren. “We’re trying to send the message that Olenka is not just for infants and kids,” Bren says of the school’s new logo. “Our classes are built on the interaction of parent and child.”
Over the years, Olenka School of Music has expanded to offer a wide range of keyboard, voice and instrumental classes, private lessons and camps.
Perhaps what the Olenka school is best known for, however, is introducing the youngest of students to the world of music. Using the early education music and movement program known as Music Together, Olenka instructors emphasize the participation of parents as the key to helping their children develop basic musical abilities from a young age.
“The mantra is that any child can learn to play the piano and learn rhythm to be able to dance and sing,” says Alisa Mendez, whose daughter, Leia, has attended OSM for seven years. “I miss the days when she was 5 and we learned to conduct with scarves, learned rhythms with rain sticks and triangles, and danced to pieces to get a feel for the rhythm. This is what keeps [the Olenka school] fun for young kids learning and encourages parents to keep returning.”
After more than a decade of teaching, Bren got a different perspective when she brought her own baby to class in 2004. “Journalists who came just to snap some pictures couldn’t leave because they were amazed by how the babies interacted with the music,” she recalls. “They didn’t fuss and were simply enchanted.”
A fast-paced class where the activity changes every three to four minutes creates what Bren dubs “compact fun.” She compares the holistic curriculum, designed to keep children excited and engaged, to taking a multivitamin: You get it all in one bite.
“It’s absolutely amazing to see what these children can achieve if you package it correctly for them,” says Karyn Hobson, an Olenka instructor and mother of three budding musicians. “It’s so nerve-racking to be a parent sometimes that it’s great to watch them enjoy the process and know that their child is secretly learning.”
During a recent keyboard class for 6- to 9-year-olds and their parents, Hobson kept her students engaged by handing out castanets so pupils could (loudly) practice the rhythms she demonstrated with flashcards.
“Say and play is the key,” Hobson insists. “I want to hear everyone saying the notes out loud to help our brains hear it again.”
Parents and students spent the 50-minute class alternating between sitting in a circle practicing piano finger position while sight-reading and singing “Do-Re-Mi” before heading back to their individual keyboards to play what they just learned. Toward the end of class, Hobson challenged her students to compose two measures of their very own music.
Bren -- once the non-English-speaking piano teacher in America’s heartland -- delights in watching her pupils navigate a new language.
“We are united by the love of children and the passion for teaching them to speak through the universal language of music,” Bren says. “That’s what keeps this school going, even after 20 years.”