10-17 piano lab-01

Jahliyah Wiggins (left) said the piano class at A.M. Story Intermediate is her first opportunity to study piano. Piano is one of five electives she had to choose from this year.  Also pictured: Brody Nash (center)

Jahliyah Symone Wiggins, 11, said she always wanted to study piano because her aunt had one in her home. As a student at A.M. Story Intermediate School, she's doing it – not at her aunt's house but in a school piano lab filled with electronic keyboards.

Wiggins is one of about a dozen budding sixth-grade players attending the daily class, where they play and practice under music teacher Julie Bell.

Bell plays the piano, counts rhythms, or plays a CD while walking around the room, watching the students' techniques. During a class Tuesday, students learned to play chords and simple tunes about two minutes long, including “Happy Birthday.”

Sixth-graders at A.M. Story may take the piano lab as an elective. Other choices are band, art, choir, and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, and math).

Only a handful of schools around the state offer a piano lab, which started at A.M. Story about a decade ago. The benefits of the class go beyond music.

Bell said music boosts students' intellectual development. Playing piano engages the right and left hemispheres of the brain, which promotes creativity, and even improves learning in reading, math, and foreign languages.

In the piano lab, Bell said, by taking the class daily, students learn the equivalent of four years of study in just one one school year.

Only six weeks into the school year, the beginners are already close to completing their first book—equivalent to one year of studying piano with weekly private lessons.

The lab's 16 pianos, each about four feet long, are heavy duty KorgTM electronic keyboards with 88 weighted keys that play—and sound— like an acoustic piano. The room has enough of the keyboards so students can learn as a group, following a music book written for beginners.

Reece Garcia, 11, said he enjoys learning to play in a group. He said the piano is his first instrument, but it's also his favorite class. His favorite piece is “Lost My Partner,” a short tune from the beginner's book.

Cambree Carr, 11, enjoys learning from Bell, who taught her music classes in the fourth and fifth grades. Carr also competes with Bell's music memory team.

The piano lab doesn't offer the same range of instruments as the band class, but to learn the piano is to learn the foundations of music.

Amma Ofosohene, 11, who has played for four years, chose to study piano again because she enjoys the instrument's range. “When you combine [the notes] you can create your own music,” she said.

The class has just as many boys as girls, all of different sizes and complexions – and all playing in harmony.

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