Lessons in the Wright key

Longtime Oak Park piano teacher continues to inspire young players

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By SUSAN ROSS

Angela Wright has the key?#34;176 keys, to be precise?#34;on two grand pianos, which, together with her skill and imagination, unlock the treasure of music for her many students.

It's 9 a.m. on Wednesday. Five parents and seven 4-year-old preschoolers in stocking feet are assembled in Wright's Oak Park studio for this week's assortment of playing, listening, moving and exploring music. As Wright plays, they pretend to be conductors, moving their arms up and down with the beat. They march with an imaginary wooden shoe on one foot and an imaginary soft shoe on the other while Wright alternates loud and soft chords, teaching the difference between strong and weak beats.

Jenna, Isaac, Kaitlin, Anna, Noah and Bjorn make up this class, which will stay together two to four years, becoming friends and musical comrades. Still at the piano, Wright shifts from hearing dynamics (loud-soft) to hearing meters (basic rhythmic motion). Now in three small groups, the children stand and march in turn when they hear their assigned meter.

"Time for galloping ponies," announces Wright, and a kid circle shuffles around the studio with movement corresponding to dotted rhythms.

As the lesson progresses, each student goes to the piano, while the rest relax and listen from floor mats. Wright takes great care with how the fingers are used, knowing that good habits of motion will serve well for a lifetime. Each takes a turn, feet a foot and a half from the floor, playing through tunes with titles like "Tumble Toys" and "SeeSaw."

Wright stays aware of all the students, asking questions and throwing out comments to keep all involved in the music. Most students move on a page or two, and are talked through the challenges posed by the new tunes; some are asked to repeat a page for the following week.

Done with this, Wright moves the group to a white board. She reviews how the musical staff works, how to write notes, quizzes on note names, time values and clefs. She keeps moving, asks for volunteers. Throughout, the parents watch, taking notes that will guide them through the practice hours with their children during the week.

Now Wright talks about bears?#34;papa, brother, mama, sister, baby?#34;training ears to identify five different ranges on the piano. After successfully completing this last task, both the hour and this lesson are finished.

Mother knows best
If one believes in fate, Wright was destined for her current profession. Her mother, Toula Wright, played piano, loved music and studied with Ethel Lyon at the American Conservatory in downtown Chicago. Wright tells the story that before she was born, her mother said, "I'm going to have a little girl who's going to play the piano."

Sure enough, Wright started lessons at age 3 1/2 with her mother's teacher at the American Conservatory. Mother and daughter took the train from Bensenville for a full day downtown that included lunch and was definitely a dress up occasion. Talent showed early. As she grew, Wright took the train by herself for lessons, and by age 14 was also assisting Lyon.

Wright continued at the American Conservatory for college, earning both bachelor's and master's degrees in performance while studying with Grace Welsh.

Ryan Blankemeier, 8, has studied with Wright since age 4. His posture at the keyboard is erect even though his feet are still 6 inches from the floor. He plays exercises in quick order, and enjoys a game with a stopwatch to time how rapidly he can play a scale (6 seconds on the second go).

Wright's manner is always calm and focused, and this transfers to the students. Ryan is memorizing his recital piece, "Rushing Brook," in sections, starting from the end of the piece. Memorizing from the end is an underused trick; as one grows more tired, and/or more distracted, the material is better known.

Ryan's last tune this day is "The Entertainer," a Scott Joplin rag. Wright smiles and kids him: "This was the piece you really wanted to do." He plays well, handling the syncopations without hesitation, and is sent off for another week of music at home.

One measure of Wright's success is her full complement of students. She teaches six days a week, 10 hours a day, and her studio usually runs around 100 students. She doesn't keep a waiting list, believing that when the desire is there, a teacher should be available. If she doesn't have space, she recommends starting lessons with one of her advanced students. Her studio includes ages 3 to over 80, beginners and returning students. Having taught for 31 years in Oak Park, Wright says she's had the pleasure of seeing some of her students make a life in music. She's also now teaching the children of former students.

That's the case with Mary Jo Monjes Andrews. Growing up in Chicago, she and her four siblings came to Oak Park every Sunday for lessons with "Miss Angie," and now she brings daughter Sarah from their home in Naperville. Andrews is convinced it's worth the long drive.

"Sarah has grown, not only in music, but in discipline, which is a life-long lesson. Wright is a teacher who motivates, and who has a verbal contract with each student. Assignments are expected to be done, and each child works at their own pace," she explains.

"Wright's teaching is based on knowing the basics of music, technique at the keyboard and discipline," adds Andrews. "And she makes it fun."

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