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Neel Smith – 15 year piano student; from Worcester

[A]t some point, even if you go through days where you don’t seem to make any progress, you’ll have a moment when suddenly a passage you’ve struggled with starts to come more easily to you, or you start to hear music in a phrase that just sounded like plonking notes before. That’s always a great feeling…

Adult piano student Neel Smith can’t imagine going through the current pandemic without music. He feels that a lot of us have been shut off from so many experiences with no concerts at Mechanics Hall, no recitals at Pakachoag Music School, and no choral groups to sing with. Making some kind of music at home has been more important than ever for Neel.

As Neel reflects on the past nine months, he says his conversations during lesson time with an incredibly patient teacher Adult Piano student Neel prepares for lessonhelp him listen more carefully to, think about, and find meaning in the music he is trying to play.

His piano teacher Janeen Baker is infinitely patient, and if she is ever frustrated, Neel notes:  “She somehow manages not to let it show! ”  Neel’s work schedule has been chaotic during the pandemic, and he had to reschedule lessons on a couple of occasions. He was particularly appreciative of the flexibility Janeen has provided during a difficult time.

With the challenges of using technology for lessons, Neel loves that they were able to figure that out together – teacher and student.  If his Wi-Fi drops out, and they have to continue with a shaky phone connection, they both figured out together how to do that.   Neel also mentions:  “Janeen has also been very helpful in thinking about things I can be doing on my own, between lessons.   I never imagined discussing online resources like Youtube with my teacher before the pandemic, but those extra suggestions have made a nice addition to my lessons.”

When asked if there is a musician or a music group that particularly inspires him, Neel says has so many inspiring figures to choose from — famous, and not famous alike. Before the COVID19 pandemic, he had been singing with the All Saints Choir, and working with that group week in and week out was a constant inspiration to him. Choir members range in age from elementary school students to those even older than he is. What is most inspiring to him is the way that the commitment of the whole group raises everyone’s level to a point where the choir could create a choral sound that on some occasions literally gave him goosebumps.  For Neel, singing in a choir and applying his piano learning in that context has been an inspiring experience of the lifelong joy of music shared with others.

Neel is currently working on several concrete skills that he hopes will deepen his musical understanding. He is working to play brief compositions more frequently from memory and to improvise simple harmonizations on a given tune.

Neel’s advice to other students during this time is to not let the pandemic discourage you. “Studying music is not a race! It’s OK to take time to reach your goals. Keep at it, and at some point, even if you go through days where you don’t seem to make any progress, you’ll have a moment when suddenly a passage you’ve struggled with starts to come more easily to you, or you start to hear music in a phrase that just sounded like plonking notes before. That’s always a great feeling; try to enjoy all the days in between, even if you feel like you’re struggling. If you can find a friend or group of friends who like to talk about music together, that makes the effort more fun, and can really help you stick with the daily effort of practice.”, he says.

Neel is a great example of how one can pursue music even in tough times like the current pandemic. We, at Pakachoag, hope to continue to provide more online opportunities during and beyond the pandemic for students of all ages.   Pakachoag Executive Director Sarah Smongeski, who has known Neel since before he began his lessons, when his children took lessons, says “We are inspired by Neel’s long-term commitment to the piano! Fifteen years forward, and Neel has progressed from the simplest of piano melodies to playing major classical pieces like Bach Inventions and repertoire of the Romantic Period.  What a significant accomplishment!”.