Digital Piano Lab Giving 8th-graders a Chance to Flex Their Musical Wings

Herald-Whig Staff Writer

Eighth graders at Quincy Junior High School are getting a new opportunity to explore the magic of making music.

A state-of-the-art digital piano lab went into operation this fall on the school’s fourth floor. The lab — featuring 24 digital pianos bought with donations — is being used as part of the school’s exploratory arts class for eighth graders. Students spend equal amounts of time over the course of the school year learning about playing the piano, the Seven Habits, computers and art.

Kathi Dooley, the Quincy School District’s director of music, said she was especially pleased to see the piano section come to life because it helped fill a musical void for students in that age group.

“Over the years we’ve been able to provide incredible performance opportunities for students who are into music performance. And in the K-6 level, the general music teachers have done an outstanding job providing general music,” she said.

But for students in grades 7-12 who aren’t in a performance group such as band, orchestra and choir, the school district hasn’t offered much music education because of budgetary constraints. Dooley has been seeking to change that for years.

The seed for the piano lab was planted 15 years ago after the death of Mary M. Knapheide of Quincy, who had a deep affection for music and insisted that all of her children take piano lessons.

After Mrs. Knapheide died Nov. 1, 1999, at age 85, her family made a sizeable donation to the Quincy School District’s music department in her memory.

“Their only request was that it might have something to do with a piano,” Dooley said.

Dooley waited for the right opportunity to use the donation. She often thought about creating a piano lab, but something always interfered with her plans.

“I’ve been holding that money in an account over the years and adding to it from other people’s memorials that have been graciously given to the music department,” she said.

Finally, with approval from Principal Dan Sparrow and an extra donation of $10,000 from the Quincy Public Schools Foundation, Dooley took steps to get a digital piano lab set up by the time school started in August. Teacher Kim Bingham was hired to instruct the piano phase of the exploratory arts program.

The lab isn’t yet completely finished. Dooley said that once a 25th piano and few more “bells and whistles” are added, the total cost for the project will be about $55,000.

A ceremony recognizing the Knapheide family’s donation is planned for December.

“This has been many, many years in the making,” Dooley said.

The advanced digital pianos are all computerized, and they have a sophisticated accompaniment system built in.

“So literally the fourth time a kid has been in the room, they can just play with one finger and press the accompaniment, and it will make it sound like you’re a symphony orchestra,” she said.

Students have taken to the pianos with enthusiasm. Sparrow said many students told them him they had always wanted to learn how to play but never got the chance to take lessons.

“From everything we’re hearing, the students are highly engaged,” Sparrow said. “Parents have been very appreciative, too. One parent said his child is now inspired to come to school because of the piano lab and the opportunity it provided him. We’ve had multiple stories like that from parents who were impressed with what their children were coming home with.”

Dooley said one father told her how his family had been planning to sell a piano “because no one had touched it” for years.

“Then all of a sudden one day he was up in the shower, and he heard someone playing the piano,” Dooley said.

Upon coming downstairs, the dad realized his eighth-grade child was playing.

“Where did you learn this?” the dad inquired.

“In school,” came the reply.

Sparrow said he hopes the piano lab will help open the door to a lifetime of music appreciation and enjoyment for students who continue to play the instrument on their own.

“We’re giving kids opportunities that they might not normally have and exposing them to this great big world that’s out there,” he said.

Dooley agreed, saying music is “the universal language” that speaks to all people. She hopes a zest for learning more will rub off on the eighth graders coming through the piano lab.

“They’re still young enough to realize there are many things they can do — and areas they can explore — to be the whole person they’re going to be,” she said. 217-221-3378

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