GETTING IN TUNE Music lessons are striking the right note with adults


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.

"I've been playing since I was 3," says Ms. Cheng. Now 26, she performed all through high school and college, and even considered becoming a professional musician before deciding on a business career.

"When you think of how few people are successful as concert pianists, you wonder whether you're good enough," she says. "A lot of people said I was, but I don't know. What I know is that music is something I can't live without. When you really enter into a piece, I don't know how to explain it, but you're just there. Once you get the notes down, the fingering down, something else happens, and you feel it, you're just in it."

That kind of talk is music to Ms. Liss' ears.

"What we're talking about is music, yes, and notes, yes, but there's also something else," she says. "I think it has to do with maybe a kind of therapy that comes from working out to your limits in an area that's completely different from what you do every day for a living. And this seems to be something that gives adults a tremendous sense of personal satisfaction and fulfillment."

Her method seems to combine the infinite patience of the grade-school piano teacher with a flair for the dramatic.

At her ensemble class of about a dozen students that meets Monday evenings at Peabody, for example, she remains serene in the face of wrong notes, missed entrances, faulty intonation. Serene, but not indifferent; every nerve is engaged in what is going on. Indeed, there is something theatrical, almost fantastical about the intensity of her concentration, as if she were storing up energy from her surroundings for the moment she can put everything right with a few well-chosen phrases.

Ms. Liss insists that she comes by her larger-than-life persona honestly. At various points in her career she has done theater, nightclub acts and Broadway musicals in addition to teaching classical music.

"Teaching is bigger than life," she says. "You make examples that are exaggerated. It's not an affectation, it's just part of the way I try to get across what music is about to me."

While Mr. Russell and Ms. Merkle play through their duet for piano and viola, Ms. Liss closes her eyes, throws her head back and seems to inhale the music deep into her soul, occasionally punctuating a melodic phrase with a gesture of the hand or nod of the head.

The music ebbs and flows as the players weave their separate lines together. The performance is still rough in places, but there are moments when the instruments actually seem to breathe together like two living creatures, and a great well of emotion opens up.

"When she teaches, it's like a transformation," says Jane Winer, who is studying clarinet in the ensemble class. "You can always learn from her even if she's working with someone else. She has very high standards."

Ms. Winer, who teaches art and art history at Howard Community College, is somewhat unusual among Peabody's adult music students in that she never studied music as a child. She is still somewhat bemused by the love affair she entered into on taking up her instrument 16 years ago at the age of 31.

"I had no idea I would last this long, that it would mean so much to me," she says. "I knew nothing when I started, only that I wanted to do something in music. And yet this has been the most rewarding, challenging journey of my life."

At one point, she even took a sabbatical from her school and enrolled for a year in the regular Peabody conservatory program as a special student.

"I loved it," she says today. "It was the best time of my life even though I had to struggle to keep up. I could hold my own in subjects like music history, but courses like ear training and sight-singing separated the real musicians. I failed the second semester of ear training. But I worked as hard as I could, and I'm proud of having failed it, because I did all I could and still couldn't do it and that told me something, which is that we can't all do everything."

After her year at Peabody Ms. Winer returned to teaching and continued taking private lessons. She joined Ms. Liss' ensemble class a few years ago to get more experience playing with other adults, though she admits that at first she was terrified of performing in public.

"The problem for adults is that music isn't something you should do alone," she says. "My first introduction to classical music was in high school when I heard a performance of Mozart's Clarinet Trio K. 498. I thought I had never heard anything so beautiful. Then when I came to Ms. Liss' class, that was one of the pieces we did. I played it for the 100th anniversary celebration at the Peabody Prep. It was my very first recital and it was just a great thrill."

Ms. Winer says she practices at least two hours a day, sometimes four. "During the week, I grab my briefcase with all my school papers in the morning and go out, and when I come back that night I put the briefcase down and pick up the clarinet. It's the first thing I do when I come home. Even if I'm tired and don't feel like it, I make myself do it and pretty soon I'm all right again.

"Music is such a vast subject, you can completely lose yourself in it. It's almost like an addiction. Lots of other things suffer. People will call and I'll have to say sorry, I'm busy. Because it

requires constant practice, otherwise you never get anywhere. But I'm having a blast."

That kind of dedication is the main difference between teaching adult students and teaching children, Ms. Liss says.

"Adult students study because they want to, not because someone tells them they have to," she says. "They're writing their own checks. So they make heroic efforts to be there."

She still remembers one of her first students, a corporate lawyer at a prestigious downtown firm.

"He was the worst student I ever had," she recalls. "He had two tin ears and it took him 45 minutes to get through one movement of a Haydn sonata. But he loved his music lessons."

What is it that drives otherwise successful, competent adults to pursue a rigorous discipline that many will never have any hope of truly mastering?

Ms. Liss believes the answer lies in the nature of music itself, in its character as pure expression.

"People need something private and personal that nurtures their spirit and their soul," she says. "They need to remove themselves from everything, if only temporarily. Studying music puts you in touch with yourself in a very personal way."

Mario Russell, one of several pianists in Ms. Liss' Monday evening group, calls music "my alternative means of expression and solace."

Mr. Russell, 29, is winding up a two-year stint as a clerk for a federal judge in Baltimore. He enrolled in the ensemble class in August and calls it "the best value for the money I've found in a long time."

Each day after work he goes straight to the practice rooms at the school and plays for a couple of hours at least.

"It's like entering a sanctuary," he says.

He began playing the piano as a child and never really gave it up, though, like many other adults, he realizes now he didn't have the discipline to pursue it seriously as an adolescent.

"Piano lessons are tough on adolescents," he says. "I wanted to do other things besides practice six hours a day; I didn't love the instrument or the solitude involved enough for that."

Still, he kept up his interest in college, where he took a few theory courses and learned to sing. Later he sang in a chorus in Washington and played the organ for a year for a small church in New Jersey.

He also played keyboards in a rock band for five years. The group performed in Washington-area bars, mostly playing dance music and pop tunes.

"Playing in the band was unlike anything I had ever done before, except maybe for singing in the chorus," he says. "When things clicked it was very exciting. You sort of entered a different zone, when everybody was playing just right together. It was really kind of amazing. But I had never done that with classical music."

One reason he decided to join Ms. Liss' class was to see what it would be like to achieve that kind of spontaneity with a violinist or flutist instead of guys playing electric guitar.

Violist Paula Merkle, Mr. Russell's partner in the ensemble class, also learned to play as a child but quit after college and didn't take up her instrument again until after she had her first child in her early 30s.

"I was home with the baby and I was bored and restless," she says. "So my husband gave me these lessons."

Now she juggles her roles as mother of three, lawyer and music student. It can get hectic. She says she has time to practice only four or five times a week for half an hour. "I have to quit

whenever a child yells," she says. "Forty or 50 minutes is a lot for me."

"I'm not a performer by nature," she says. "I don't like performing in front of a judge and jury, and I don't play music to perform. If it weren't for the pressure of a recital, I probably would never do it."

So why does she put herself through this? Part of it is the clarity of purpose music-making involves. Ms. Merkle says that when she comes to class "I know I'm there just to make music."

BTC "For me, it's another dimension," she says. "Trying to find the music in a piece is not something I do in my everyday life."

She and Mr. Russell are working on a group of baroque duets by French composer Marin Marais. It's a collection of courtly dances, and the one they're practicing at the moment modulates subtly from major to minor modes. They've got the counting down, but the expression still needs work.

"I can get the notes right, the time right," Ms. Merkle says. "But sometimes I think if I were a real musician I would be able to emote more, to catch the emotional tone of a piece."

The ideal of "perfection" is something all musicians struggle with. But Ms. Liss believes it is particularly vexing for adult students.

"When you're a kid, it's like 'Oh, I'll be able to do that when I grow up.' But when you're an adult, you realize that you're already who you're supposed to be. You're more naked, because you don't have that excuse anymore.

"The word 'perfect' comes up a lot -- the need to be perfect, the desire to be perfect. And it can be very destructive, because nobody plays a 'perfect' performance. What you have is control, technique, a performance that makes you feel as well as think -- if you leave my office with that, then I've done my job."

What Ms. Liss describes as that struggle or quest is what keeps her students coming back. It is a return that is as much a rediscovery of self as it is a reunion of musical colleagues.

"I don't know if I'm ever going to be really good," muses Ms. Winer, the clarinetist. "But you know, that's why I won't let it go. It's a kind of a mystery -- making the instrument do what I want, making the music speak for me. Whatever I have is a very serious addiction, and I love it. This is the best time of my life. I hope I'm still playing when I'm 90."

GLENN MCNATT is an editorial writer for The Sun. He play several musical instruments.


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