Teaching piano to disabled students from afar

Katherine Frey/The Washington Post - Sophia Townley, 15, who has cerebral palsy, takes piano lessons over the phone with a teacher in Illinois.

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On Monday afternoon, 15-year-old Sophia Townley sits at the piano in the well-lighted basement of her Fairfax home. Tethered via headset to a little, black Panasonic phone positioned next to her sheet music, she sits up straight, composed and concentrating.

Mark Miller, her piano teacher, calls her for her weekly lesson. She goes through her chord drills and recites them over the phone as she goes:

(Jenny Lee Miller) - Mark Miller teaches piano to students with special physical challenges.

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“E major, E augmented, A major, A augmented . . . D-flat major,” she begins.

“Almost. Raise your pinky up a half step,” says Miller, listening carefully. “I think that was a major G. Try that again.”

Bubbly sounds of digital static trickle in to fill in the intermittent silence as they work, a reminder of the great physical distance between them. Sophia breaks the silence with her clean, crisp playing.

“Now play B-flat over D,” says Miller. He is talking fast, but Sophia doesn’t miss a word.

“That used to take you 15 minutes,” Miller says, “Now, about five. Let’s add the bass notes this time.”

“Okay,” Sophia responds.

She begins to play the bass notes now, with her middle finger, the one usable finger of her left hand. Sophia suffers from cerebral palsy, but she exudes an unusual confidence and wisdom for her age.

“Whatever she is interested in, train her like you would an Olympic athlete,” Phillip Pearl, a pediatric neurologist at Children’s National Medical Center told her father, Merle Ed Townley, when Sophia was young.

So her father signed her up for swimming lessons at age 5. Torticollis, a sustained contraction of the muscles in the neck, along with the general tightness and excessive muscle tone common with cerebral palsy — had severely frozen many of Sophia’s muscles, and swimming was a way to combat it. But it was nearly impossible for her at first. She could barely move her left arm. It took years of intense physical therapy. And she had to muster the courage to face the other swimmers. But she was determined, and after many years, managed to bend her body to her will.

Years of swimming instilled in her a sense of confidence, but neither Sophia nor her parents ever thought she would play the piano. Hearing her sisters practice, Sophia longed to do the same. When she told her father she wanted to play, he searched for the perfect teacher for her. He had studied piano himself, and knew well the challenges she faced. Learning disabilities would make studying music theory and learning chords a challenge, while range of vision and fine motor impairments created physical hurdles to overcome. He had his doubts, but her doctor encouraged them, believing Sophia capable.

“I trolled the Internet for days looking for someone who taught jazz piano,” Townley explained, as he knew that the approach with jazz would be more about improvisation and learning chords. That approach would be easier for Sophia, he believed.

“I found a video of a woman playing jazz [piano] with one hand, and she was blind.” The video led him to Miller’s Web site, so he called him. Now, Townley says, “Mark is my Olympic coach.”

Before teaching, learning

Miller begins his typical Monday workday at 8:00 a.m. Central Standard. He phones students in Hong Kong. Then England. Then Norway. By afternoon, he’s moved on to Denver, Fairfax, Lansing, Mich., North Carolina, and Oak Park, Ill.

He manages to do so without ever leaving his studio in Barrington, Ill., where he teaches piano long distance. Miller still teaches a handful of students in person, but he is one of the first in a growing cadre of music teachers who instruct their students remotely. He teaches the vast majority of his students either via phone or Skype. (He has even taught lessons while driving.)

Moving at the speed of his students, Miller modifies the lessons as he goes, applying a personally tailored approach that differs from traditional method book instruction.

“I see it as teaching someone to fish by comparison to giving someone a fish,” he says. Focusing first on chords and chord structure, his students begin learning the fundamental structures of the songs they want to play. This takes the emphasis off memorization and encourages playing by ear and finding new ways to play well-known songs, as well as offering the foundation with which to create new songs.

“This is how the approach to teaching jazz and classical differ, and why guitar is so popular,” he says, to explain his theory-driven, chord-focused teaching style.

A typical lesson begins with three-note chord drills, then moves on to a familiar standard such as “Misty” or “Ain’t Misbehavin’.”

Miller’s mother, Patricia, was his first musical inspiration. One of the first in the country to receive a bachelor’s degree in music therapy from the School Sisters of St. Francis’s Alverno College in Milwaukee, she found employment as a music therapist at two mental hospitals in Indiana in the early 1950s.

For years she played classical works such as “Liebestraum” by Franz Liszt, “Fantasie Impromptu” by Chopin, and “Bach 2 and 3 Part Inventions” just before the young Miller’s bedtime.

“I can remember saying/shouting from my room toward my mother, ‘Keep playing!’ ” he says, “To which she would often say, ‘You are supposed to be sleeping!’ ”

He eventually asked her to teach him. So Patricia Miller began teaching classical piano to him and two other neighborhood children and would continue to teach him off and on between the ages of 6 and 16. Although he loved the music, he didn’t take well to the traditional style of teaching and quit his study several times over the years.

“There was always lots of music lying around at home [though], so I would try and play everything I could get my hands on,” says Miller, “In turn, I became a very good sight reader.”

Then inspiration struck again. In early 1979, Miller went to hear the famed jazz pianist Bill Evans play at Rick’s Cafe in Chicago.

“My best friend’s dad was in the Army with Bill Evans, and when he came to town to perform, my friend’s dad said, ‘You really have to go hear this guy play.’ ”

The 19-year-old Miller was part of a full house that night to see Evans. He had never heard a professional jazz pianist play before. There in the dimly lit room, he sat closely enough to have a great view of Evan’s hands as he played.

“He was not in great health at the time, so he seemed quite stoic to me. But his playing was supreme and inspirational,” said Miller, “Bill was not a flashy player. His forte, at least for me, was his gorgeous, well thought-out chord voicing.”

Though it sounded nothing like his mother’s playing, he found a similarity in the music’s emotion and fluidity.

(In what would later turn out to be a strange coincidence, Evans once had to perform one-handed for a full week at the Village Vanguard. While shooting heroin, he hit a nerve and put his hand temporarily out of commission.)

Miller had just begun studying with Alan Swain, a master jazz pianist, whom he credits as the catalyst who launched his career in music. He had to travel via train from Champaign-Urbana to Chicago every two weeks for the lessons, which made his study costly, but Miller found it worth the time and expense.

“I remember my mom asking me, ‘Why are you going all the way over to Evanston?’ to take all these lessons, but I just knew I loved the sound I was getting out of the piano,” he says, “I knew that the sound he was teaching me was unique and beautiful.”

And he’s still learning

After graduating from the University of Illinois in the fall of 1982, Miller landed a dream gig playing on Grand Cayman Island, an event that he credits as another turning point in his career. “Six nights a week . . . and every Wednesday on the beach under the stars.”

Over the next few decades, Miller worked as either a private instructor or as a house pianist. Now at 53, he has been teaching for 30 years and teaching long distance for just over 10. Over the course of this time, he has customized almost 3000 different arrangements of popular songs of varying levels of difficulty for his students.

Though he didn’t know many details about his mother’s music therapy background until the last few years of her life, he soon found his own life in some ways to be taking on a similar shape. He began teaching piano to students with the use of only one hand.

When Kay Breslin, one of Miller’s former local students suffered a stroke that left her paralyzed on one side, she never thought she would play music again. But a chance encounter with Miller inspired a friend of Breslin’s to encourage her to try again, with the use of her functional hand. Miller had said he could write some arrangements for her.

“I didn’t want to do it,” Breslin says from her home in Chicago. “I didn’t think it would sound like anything . . . and then my friend commissioned Mark to write some arrangements for my birthday. It was the beginning of something wonderful. It’s brought something back into my life that was very precious.”

A couple of years later, Breslin is still a regular student, and when she plays, she sounds as if she is playing with both hands. Miller explains that this is possible because there is a lot of doubling of nonessential notes in a regular two-handed arrangement. In an arrangement for one hand, he is able to keep a rich, full sound by cutting out the doubled and unnecessary tones and incorporating the key notes of the melody with strategically placed essential chord tones to support it.

Because of his availability to teach via phone and Skype, Miller has attracted more students with challenged mobility who sought his one-handed teaching style.

“I can’t think of a more meaningful job than to bring music into the lives of someone who didn’t think it possible to play piano,” he says.

Miller is not the first teacher/composer to pen one-handed arrangements for the piano. The unique genre has a history nearly as rich as the history of the instrument itself. It evolved out of necessity. From the Napoleonic Wars, through the American Civil War to World Wars I and II, arm and finger amputations left many former or would-be pianists in need of music that fit their condition.

Composers began to write one-handed compositions specifically for these veterans, often in what came to be known as the contrapuntal/homophonic style that provides the illusion of both hands playing simultaneously. Composers of the new one-handed style, such as Count Geza Zichy (1849-1924) — a one-handed player himself — sought to use the new compositions to demonstrate to war amputees that they didn’t have to feel impeded.

Miller says his goal now is to get the word out so that others with the use of just one hand can learn to play the piano, and perhaps to expand what they believe they are capable of achieving.

Teaching is also a learning experience for him as well. Before Sophia, Miller says, he never worked with a student with cerebral palsy.

“It was difficult to teach her to read notes in the beginning,” he says, “I knew I had to focus on chords for the first month or so. Once she was able to play chords quickly then we could focus more on reading . . . melodies.”

As with his other students, Miller sent her his master list of songs, and she chose some favorites. As their student/teacher relationship progressed, Miller learned Sophia’s likes and dislikes, what she knows well, and where she needs more work.

“One thing I did learn a few weeks into lessons is that Sophia has difficulty reaching an octave on the piano,” Miller says. Her father had to explain the physical limitations of her hand’s span. Miller then modified his arrangements accordingly.

“I found out about a month into lessons that Sophia was able to play single notes with her left hand.” Because of this, they were able to add single-note bass parts to the arrangements to give them a fuller sound.

Miller said that Sophia is learning quickly. She can now play rapidly and well more than half of the 144 chords that exist.

“This is key,” says Miller, “Because there are a finite number of chords, the faster she can play any position of the chords, the quicker she will be able to play a song. Right now, it’s getting fun, at least for me, because I’m showing Sophia choices as how to play and add notes to the right hand [to create harmonies].”

“Most importantly . . . I am teaching Sophia how music is constructed and not just how to play it,” Miller says. And because of this, he is “confident and thrilled to know that she will have the lifelong pleasure of playing the piano.”

Townley said he sometimes sneaks down and “hides” on the basement stairs to listen to her practice.

“To watch her,” he said, “it’s inspiring.”

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