‘Power’ man: A simple way to instill a love of music — teach people what they want to play
By John P. Huston
reprinted from Wilmette Life, June 1, 2010
Most children view piano lessons as punishment.
Not Rebecca Worth.
Quite the contrary. The Deerfield fourth-grader looks forward to her weekly lesson, when her teacher arrives at her house after school.
“Right now I’m playing ‘Party in the USA’ by Miley Cyrus,” Worth said. “I’ve usually been choosing my favorite songs. Like last time I played ‘Banana Pancakes’ by Jack Johnson.”
She’s been taking lessons for five years from Abraham Levitan, whose company, Piano Power, teaches piano, guitar, drums and voice to North Shore residents.
Rebecca’s mother, Pam, has a “mandatory rule that you play an instrument,” and all four of her children have learned from Piano Power.
“I wanted someone who would promote the love of music,” Pam Worth said. She found Levitan through word-of-mouth several years ago and has seen him nearly every week since. He’s taught all four of her children.
“There’s been some jazz and popular music,” she said of her children’s lessons. “My older girls, it was more like, ‘I like this song by John Mayer,’ and he would write it down and teach it to them.”
She says the approach is a success. Her oldest son, Sam, is now a freshman at Dartmouth College.
“He was never passionate about music like Abraham, but he went off to college and he said there’s a piano in the main room and whenever he wants to relax he goes and plays a little,” Worth said.
Learning music that’s fun to play means her children spend more time at the keyboard.
“Because we’re not rigid and strict in this, it works, because I don’t think they would have stuck with it if it was all classical music,” Worth said.
That’s precisely the point, said Levitan, 31.
“I was taught in a pretty traditional way up until I hit seventh grade, and then I quit,” he said. “Fortunately, only for about a year and a half. When I started back up in high school I found a teacher who could teach me jazz theory from A-to-Z and could teach me songs.”
That led to writing his own songs. He’s been behind a piano ever since, and now fronts a rock band called Baby Teeth, which has released three albums and toured the country.
Song writing opened up a new world to him, musically.
“It became easy once I realized how frequently the same chord progressions were used,” Levitan said. “That kind of crystallized for me how possible it’d be to have a turbo-charged curriculum if the curriculum was responsive to where you are as a student.”
After graduating from Yale University in 2000 with a degree in history, he moved to Chicago to start a band. Teaching was a way to bring in a little extra money. Not to mention, it gave him a chance to correct the mistakes his first instructor made on him.
His method is to encourage children to write their own songs. To get to that point, he encourages them to learn the music they enjoy, first.
“Even if it’s just a couple lines of the chorus, because then they don’t even realize they’re working hard because it’s something they love and they want to learn,” Levitan said.
That philosophy, along with his magnetic personality, seemed to work. But things started getting out of hand.
“Well, essentially I was having to turn people away, because I was full,” Levitan said.
That was a double-edged sword, because he wanted to impart a love of music on as many people — children especially — as possible.
“It seemed to be a teaching method that worked well and I was looking for a model that would allow me to bring it to more people,” Levitan said.
Enter Piano Power
Levitan has 10 instructors who follow his method.
“I choose them based on their creativity in their teaching and whether they are somebody who I personally enjoy spending time with,” he said. “You need to choose instructors who are going to have an awesome relationship with kids and an awesome relationship with the parents, as well.”
The instructors bring the lessons into the students’ homes across the North Shore. And what started as a handful of students in 2001 has blossomed into 135 now — ranging in age from 5-year-olds to a woman in her 70s.
But Piano Power isn’t just about 88 keys and a box of wood, either. Levitan’s crew teaches guitar, drums and voice, as well. Caroline Zessar, 11, takes piano from Levitan, guitar from Henry Van Loon and voice from Dan Mohr. She’s even contemplating a future in music.
“I’ve also taken voice lessons and guitar lessons from (Piano Power) and it’s really inspired me,” she said. “It taught me that I could be really good and talented.”
Picking up the guitar wasn’t as daunting as she’d initially thought, too.
“Henry is great,” she said. “I learned how to play a Taylor Swift song the first day. It wasn’t an easier version, it was exact.”
She’s nervously anticipating Piano Power’s June 6 recital in Highland Park, where she’ll perform in front of parents and peers.
“They’re kind of scary, but I have a lot of confidence in the things (Abraham has) taught me,” Zessar said. “I’ve done it a million times, so it’s no big deal, but it’s kind of scary doing it in front of a lot of people.”
Zessar’s two older siblings have also taken piano lessons from Levitan. Zessar’s mother, Lauri, called Levitan “our savior.” Nine years ago, when her son Andrew was 7, he was taking lessons from a woman who taught exclusively classical music.
“(Andrew) had no interest whatsoever,” Zessar said. “So as a last ditch effort, my pediatrician was using Abraham and so was my next door neighbor. I thought I’d give him a try.”
And it worked.
“Andrew loved working with Abraham, loved the music,” she said.
Levitan’s exuberance rubbed off.
“I’ll tell you, my kid is still playing music,” Zessar said. “He’s a 16-year-old jock, but he plays music for 30 to 40 minutes a night, and it’s all because Abraham gave him the love of music.”
Zessar is already worried about the day her children go off to college, and Levitan no longer has reason to visit the house every week.
“He’s a fixture,” she said. “He’s like part of the family. I’m going to really miss him when the kids don’t take piano one day.”
To Levitan, that’s music to his ears.
“Piano Power is about building long-term relationships with the students and the families,” he said. “We really want to get into what the family wants out of the experience — what the individual students are listening to on their iPods and as much as possible to create a customized experience that works with the culture of that family.”