Piano teacher in tune with students at senior center

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Shelly Birkelo
Tuesday, September 10, 2013

JANESVILLE—"Am I suppose to do this with my left hand?" Pat Helms asked as she prepared to play more notes on the electronic keyboard.

"That's correct. That's a D. That's a C," said Mary Kilmer, as she pointed out the keys.

"But it doesn't sound right," Helms said as she played.

Still, Kilmer encouraged Helms not to stop and told her what parts of her song, "Falling Leaves," should be played softly and what parts should be played more loudly.

"Remember," she told Helms and the other students, "We all make mistakes, but we don't dwell on them. If you do, then you're not moving forward."

When Helms finished playing, Kilmer praised her performance: "You've been practicing. You did really good."

Helms was among five students in eight-months of beginner piano classes taught by Kilmer. The classes started this month and meet at 9 a.m. Monday mornings at the Janesville Senior Center.

Kilmer also teaches classes at 10:30 a.m. Monday and Thursday and is adding a fourth class at 9 a.m. Thursday this week, making room for five more students to take her free, hour-long lessons.

Kilmer, 74, Janesville, said teaching others to play is her way of giving back.

"People have helped me in my life. It's my gift to help other people. If everybody did a little volunteer work, it'd be a better world," she said.

Kilmer also knows what it's like to realize a childhood dream.

"I always wanted to play (the piano) as a child," she said.

It didn't happen because her family didn't have a piano and her mother didn't think she would practice.

But after Kilmer's husband's death in 1984, she enrolled in private lessons at age 50 at UW-Rock County. Several years later, she studied under Jenny Yanke at the local senior center. Since she started offering piano lessons four years ago, Kilmer estimates she has taught at least 40 students between the ages of 50 and 85.

"It's wonderful," she said.

Each week, Kilmer listens to students play songs, delivers praise and offers advice on what they need to work on. The only expense for students is an $8 beginner piano lesson book.

"I have each student pick the one they like--classical, country or whatever--to play," she said.

They're also required to have a piano or keyboard at home and practice 20 to 30 minutes a day, she said.

Kilmer admits some of her students drop out once they realize it takes more time than they realized to practice.

Helms, 71, Beloit, said Mary is an excellent teacher.

“She gives us helpful hints, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to do music lessons with her," she said. "It's always nice to be challenged no matter what age you are."

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