By Anne Murphy
The esteemed Walker-West Music Academy is trumpeting a new cohort of students these days. For 30 years, the Selby Avenue institution has offered lessons in instrumental music and voice for children and adolescents. Now it has a program for people 55 and older who want to learn how to play an instrument or to hone their instrumental technique.
Offered initially as a four-week promotion last summer, the virtual program attracted 29 participants. Thirteen of those students continue to take part along with those who registered this fall, according to Walker-West program director Tonya Gregory.
“Walker-West has made a commitment to developing and sustaining quality music instruction for older adults,” Gregory said. “This new focus was specifically identified in our 2020-2023 strategic plan.”
Laurel Avenue resident Tom Kellogg is studying piano in the 55-and-older program under Twin Cities pianist Kavyesh Kaviraj. A Montessori teacher, Kellogg said the online lessons have allowed him to pursue an interest that has been with him since he was an undergraduate at Macalester College.
“When I was a student at Macalester, I tried twice to take piano lessons,” Kellogg said. “Both times I really didn’t practice. But then I got started again because I was working with young children, and I saw how much joy they were finding from music.” Kellogg contacted Walker-West in August and was hooked up with Kaviraj.
“Kavyesh is an amazing player and teacher,” Kellogg said. “He’s pulling me up. He has me working on things I might say I’m not ready for. But the beautiful thing about good teachers is that they’re patient while they move you forward. Kavyesh didn’t know my skill level, but he got to know me and is challenging me in the right ways.”
Academy co-founder and piano instructor Grant West believes that music lessons can add much to the lives of older people. “When you have an older student and ask them what their motivation is, they often say this is something they’ve always wanted to do,” West said. “Earlier in life, they may have been too busy working or raising a family or there may have been financial considerations.”
West is now taking guitar lessons at Walker-West. “I said, ‘I’ll never be able to play guitar as well as I play piano,’” he recalled, “but I’m so glad I didn’t quit.”
Ensuring success is important in helping older students find new definition in their lives, according to West. “They may be at a point where they need something extra in life, and music can provide that,” he said. “Playing an instrument is good for the brain cells and it’s good for the outlook. It’s so important to have this kind of outlet today. Music is a gift, and lessons are a gift learners can give to themselves.”
“After a 30-year hiatus, I’m taking piano lessons again and learning jazz for the first time. It’s fun and exciting to learn the intricacies around chord structures and improvisation.”
Walker-West executive director Braxton Haulcy has also been learning to play an instrument. “After a 30-year hiatus, I’m taking piano lessons again and learning jazz for the first time,” he said. “It’s fun and exciting to learn the intricacies around chord structures and improvisation. I know how important music has been in my life, and it’s great to be in a position to provide life-long learning and make music accessible across all generations.”
“As a child, my music education helped to support my highest artistic and academic achievements,” Haulcy said. “Music also helped me develop valuable life skills such as self-discipline, determination and problem solving. The senior learners have expressed joy in either learning a new instrument or rekindling their previous musical skills. Music provides healthy aging of the brain.”
“Everyone I’ve taught has expressed gratitude for keeping them engaged in growth, which is one of our missions at Walker-West,” said woodwinds instructor Jack Breen. “I grew up taking lessons at Walker-West, and it’s a privilege to be able to teach here now. Growing up, my teacher Felix James expressed to me that the conFstant pursuit of knowledge and the work it takes to express that knowledge through music is what keeps him sharp, and I fully believe that. To me, the most gratifying aspect is the mutual respect between student and teacher.”
Respect between instructor and student has been a hallmark of Walker-West’s philosophy since its founding by West and the Reverend Carl Walker 30 years ago to provide local children with music lessons after school. The academy currently teaches almost 200 students per week and has plans to expand.
For more information on Walker-West’s programs, visit walkerwest.org.
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