By Joe Hadsall
Globe Features Editor
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Debi Downs would love to get a studio for teaching piano lessons, so she could get her house back.
But the living room in the house where she has lived for about 10 years is decked out pretty nicely for piano lessons.
The room has five keyboards, four turned to face the one where Downs sits. Above her keyboard, a camera mounted to the ceiling records her hands as she plays. The image is displayed on a large flat-screen TV on the mantel, so that all of her students can see how she plays “Fur Elise,” or “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
As the owner of A Joyful Noise Music Studio, Downs teaches piano, violin and cello to students from around the area. And thanks to a gift from an international piano education foundation, Downs is able to teach the gift of music to more people than she could before.
And a recent scholarship lets her teach a unique, hands-on program to aspiring pianists.
Similar to the Suzuki method of violin instruction, Simply Music is a method for learning piano with playing the keys as a foundation, not reading music. Shin’ichi Suzuki, creator of the Suzuki method, and Australian music educator Neil Moore, developer of Simply Music, both are based in a philosophy of relying on an instinctual understanding of music that everyone has.
“The difference is students start playing by reading music,” Downs said. “They start playing right off. They can play music from the very moment they sit down.”
Downs received training and certification from Simply Music to teach its program to students. Valued at about $1,500, the program allowed Downs to expand how she teaches music. She is also able to offer discounted rates to tornado victims
Paula Wallace, 66, takes one of Downs’ classes, and has fallen in love with practicing. She said she wasn’t very musical growing up, but the program has been easy to pick up.
“I love to practice,” Wallace said. “I hope this doesn’t wear off.”
Downs credits a magic box and blue rats for her interest in music.
When she was 6 years old, her grandmother lived on Byers Avenue. The attic in that house was boarded up, and for good reason, according to one of her aunts, Downs said -- there were blue rats that wrote names on dolls.
For a year Downs avoided the room like the plague. For a year.
Curiosity fueled her courage, and she worked her way into the attic. At the center of the room was a single doll that had been laid face down on the floor.
She picked it up, and watched the dolls’ eyes snap open. She turned it around and lifted up the doll’s dress, and saw the name “Sarah” scrawled in blue.
Apparently, the rats were real. That was all the proof the 7-year-old Downs needed. It was now time to skedaddle.
But during her frightened flurry out of the room, she spotted a box that had music emanating from it. She might have investigated the strange black box, but the threat of blue, name-writing rats was looming largely, she said.
“I rushed down and told my grandmother that there were blue rats in the attic, and that there was a box with magic coming out of it,” Downs said.
The mystery was solved later. Despite the occurrence of a cocker spaniel dripping with blue paint, Downs learned that her aunt was fibbing about the rats.
She also learned that the box wasn’t actually playing music -- it was just behind a spot where her grandmother’s radio was playing music.
However, the box did have some magic inside. It held her great-great-grandfather’s violin.
“That’s how I got into music,” Downs said. “I started with violin, and then started playing the piano.”
Downs and her mother used to own a Wicks and Sticks store in Joplin about 30 years ago. But Downs also played. She played for College Heights Christian Church, for Missouri Southern for funerals and other churches.
One day, some people in her neighborhood introduced Downs to a daughter who wanted to learn to play.
“Once I started teaching, that was it,” Downs said. “I was hooked.”
For about 30 years, Downs taught piano traditionally. She introduced students to the notes, the treble and bass clefs, the time signatures.
Downs had heard about the Simply Music program from a Kindermusik teacher who taught the method. Interested in it, she called the program’s office and found out that teaching the method would be expensive.
“I called them and asked them how much it cost, and they said about $3,000,” Downs said. “I said, ‘Thank you very much.’”
But then program officials found out that she lived in Joplin. Three of her students were affected by the May 22 tornado. Simply Music gave Downs a scholarship and certification at no cost to her; she purchases training materials normally from lesson fees.
Downs said that students receive lesson books, CDs and DVDs containing the entire lesson. The program gets them playing instantly by emphasizing the rules behind music theory instead of translating notes on a page to a key on the keyboard.
The difference is stark and the success is quantifiable, she said. She’s even tried to find flaws in the method, but because it teaches music in a way similar to the way people pick up language, it’s hard to find flaws.
“In traditional music, it’s almost like how we expect kids to read and write before they can talk,” Downs said.
Another main difference is the songs students work on. Where a traditional student will play dozens of songs chosen for specific lessons, Simply Music students learn less songs -- further skills are advanced by teaching new layers to those same songs.
That method speaks the most to Downs, who still teaches traditional lessons for those who want them. Through Simply Music, she watches students virtually blossom as mastery of a song grows.
“It’s such a joy to watch someone learn to play and have fun doing it,” Downs said. “That was most important to me. I wanted them to have a good time.”
The program works for many ages -- Joanna Otero, 17, of Joplin, is a student in the same class as Wallace. She said that the lessons add to her musical ability -- she also plays guitar.
“I’ve been able to pick this up pretty fast,” Otero said.
Downs said that her students’ progress also sends her to the piano more. Considering how much she already loves music, that’s saying something, she said. Also inside her house is a music room, which features a mural of a blue rat dancing on a piano.
“Two of my students are sisters, and their mother called me one day,” Downs said. “She asked if I could hear them fighting over the piano. I started to apologize, but then she said the sisters were arguing over who got to practice first. That is huge. They want to go to the piano instead of it being like a chore.”
In addition to the scholarship from Simply Music, Debi Downs received a donation of 15 violins for students from Branson entertainer Shoji Tabuchi.
Want to learn?
A Joyful Noise Music Studio is a certified teacher of the Simply Music program. Debi Downs can be reached at 417-529-3324. Other area teachers can be found at simplymusic.com.