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Parents find keys to success in piano lessons
From Chicago to Claremont: In search of specialized education
PAGE 10 PAGE 14
Dad coaches sons on and off the court
Friday, March 1, 2013
The key to happiness
by Sarah Torribio
Piano teacher guides students on musical journey
Moving in, moving ahead
by Beth Hartnett
Family makes home in Claremont for Conductive Education
My three sons
by Chris Oakley
Coach and dad takes son’s team
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Piano teacher nurtures young musicians, shares keys to success
t’s many a parent’s dream to see their child sit down at the piano and play a song, whether it’s a soaring piece by Beethoven or the tinkling tones of a beloved Disney tune. Getting there, however, takes focus, dedication and long hours of practice.
Many young people drop out in frustration and boredom before they learn to combine notes and rhythm in a way that makes a composition sing. Knowing this, Michael Vargas is a man on a mission. When a kid sits at the baby grand piano in his studio in the Claremont Packing House, he wants them to smile, to nod in understanding and to marvel at how very good they’re becoming. “My biggest fear is for a kid to say, ‘Mom, I don’t want to take piano lessons any more. I hate it,’” Mr. Vargas said. “That would break my heart, because I’ve discouraged them not only from music but piano.” Mr. Vargas does whatever it takes to help his students, many of them children, grasp complex musical ideas. In his airy studio, graced with fresh flowers, paintings and busts of notable composers, he’ll sometimes jog up and
down the stairs—with each step representing a piano key—to demonstrate the concept of keyboard intervals. “Everybody learns differently. I throw everything at them and see what sticks,” he said. Analiese Knight-Ward, a 10-yearold Condit Elementary School student, is shy and tends to shut down if she’s not comfortable with someone, her father, Kevin Ward, explained. Luckily, she felt at home with Mr. Vargas right off the bat, he said. Perhaps it’s the easy patter he keeps up during lessons. “These are the blues,” he said, introducing Analiese to a new piece of music. “You probably don’t know anything about that, but you will when you grow up.” Mr. Ward considers the progress made by his daughter—who has been taking lessons at the Michael Vargas Conservatory of Music for less than a year—to be nothing short of remarkable. Each week, he is amazed when she comes home from a lesson and plays for him. And she never has to be urged to sit down at the piano because she enjoys it so much. “He’s really fun,” Analiese said of Mr. Vargas. “I like the way he teaches—I get inspired.”
PIANO MAN continues on page 6 COURIER photos/Steven Felschundneff Analiese Knight-Wardʼs father, Kevin Ward, brings his daughter to her music lessons at the Claremont Packing House with Michael Vargas. Even though she has only been playing for a short while, Mr. Vargas believes that Analiese has promise.
Piano teacher Michael Vargas describes how he wants a piece of music to sound during a private lesson with El Roble Intermediate School student Bryan Huang recently in the Packing House. Mr. Vargas has been teaching piano at his current Village West location for 3 years.
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ot long ago, Mr. Ward’s parents, who had heard Analiese had been taking piano lessons, came over for a visit. “Analiese sat down and said, ‘Grandma and Grandpa, I’m going to play for you,’” Mr. Ward shared. “I think they expected her to play ‘Chopsticks’ and go tink-tink-tink. “Instead, she started playing Malaguena and doing runs,” Mr. Ward continued. “If I could have a video of them at that moment—their shocked faces, the tears in their eyes—it would have captured how proud they are of her.” Mr. Ward and his wife, Elise Knight, had talked about putting Analiese in music lessons for years, but hadn’t gotten around to it. One day, the family was walking through the Packing House in Claremont’s Village West when they saw a sign advertising piano lessons. They headed upstairs¸ almost on a whim, and found Mr. Vargas in his studio. He gave Analiese a free, half-hour session, a courtesy he often extends to people who are pondering taking the musical plunge. “She sat down and actually played something,” Mr. Ward marveled. “I think she was hooked at that point.” A dream deferred Mr. Vargas remembers when he was first hooked on piano. He was in seventh or eighth grade when KTLA aired the 1984 film Amadeus, a biopic about composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He was transfixed by the music and consumed with the desire to play the piano. Unfortunately, his parents had other ideas. He had been taking accordion lessons for some time, which he hated, and his par-
ents wanted him to stick with it. Life went on. Mr. Vargas went to Don Bosco Technical High School, majoring in printing. After graduating with an associate’s degree and a high school diploma, he went straight to work in the printing industry. But after nearly a decade as a printer, he realized he was overworked and unfulfilled. “I looked around and saw the old timers getting ready to retire, and said, ‘There’s got to be something different,’” he said. With a desire for a new focus, Mr. Vargas decided to go to college. He was walking around the Cal State Fullerton campus when he spotted the music department. Inspired, he applied to become a music major, a decision that wasn’t exactly applauded by friends and family. “People said, ‘You’re going to study music? You can’t make any money doing that,’” Mr. Vargas recalled. “I said, ‘It’s not about that. I want to do something I enjoy.’” He was halfway through his first semester when he paid a visit to an adviser in the music department, who started off the meeting by asking Mr. Vargas what instrument he played. When he said none, the adviser was floored. “He said, ‘How did you get in here? Didn’t you have an audition?’” Once it was determined that he had somehow slipped through the cracks for admission to the program, that there had been no audition, the adviser got down to business. He suggested that Mr. Vargas study voice. “I said, ‘I don’t want to do voice, I want to learn piano,’” Mr. Vargas said. “The advisor explained that it was virtually impossible for someone my age to learn piano on a collegiate level. I said, ‘I don’t care.’”
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COURIER photos/Steven Felschundneff Piano teacher Michael Vargas shows Bryan Huang how to play a part of a Johan Sebastian Bach piece recently during a lesson in Claremont. Bryan first learned to play piano in Taiwan, where they do not emphasize learning to read music for the first few years, so Mr. Vargas has introduced the essential skill into their lesson plans.
Analiese Knight-Ward, 10, listens to the instructions of her piano teacher Michael Vargas during a private lesson in the Claremont Village. Analiese just started studying piano with Mr. Vargas but she already is considering a career in music.
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nce the adviser realized that his seriously under-qualified student was serious about learning the piano, he sent him to the head of the keyboard department. Mr. Vargas told him he needed to audition and asked if he could suggest some appropriate pieces. He left with 3 recommendations, Bach’s Fuge in D-Major, Mozart’s Sonata in G-Major and “Claire de Lune” by Claude Debussy. He had until the start of the next semester to audition. The only problem was, he couldn’t read music. He proceeded to teach himself to play the pieces, a process that took countless hours. Many weeks
later, he found himself auditioning in a big room full of PhDs and accomplished pianists. He was nervous, Mr. Vargas said, “and bombed big-time.” Somehow, he was accepted on a probationary basis. It was a daunting course of study, considering that most of his classmates had been playing piano since age 3. “I was in a theory class and the teacher put up the score for a Wagner opera and said, ‘Let’s analyze it,’” he remembered. “I said, ‘Oh my god, I’m going to have to learn fast.” He began to prepare for his next audition, this time under the tutelage of music professors. He often practiced as much as 14 hours a day. “All I did was play piano,” Mr. Vargas said. Mr. Vargas performed the same pieces for the jury and did much better. There was no time to rest on
his laurels, though, because he had to get started learning 3 or 4 new pieces. For the first 2 years, he barely managed to pass his audition. On the third year, Mr. Vargas reached a threshold where he felt that, given some time, he could handle any piano piece you threw at him. “I got my degree but, more importantly, I learned to play,” he said. It would be several more years before Mr. Vargas got up the nerve to quit his job and try his hand at being a full-time piano teacher. Ironically, his former job has since disappeared with changes in the printing industry. Meanwhile, his job as a piano instructor is paying his bills and nourishing his soul. It’s always about reaching a student on their level, finding their learning style and helping them succeed. “I can tell that I’m doing it. I’m always looking at a student’s hands,” he said. “But every once in a while, I look at their face and they’re beaming from ear-to-ear. I know they enjoy what they’re doing.” His own story of bucking the odds, with a tenacity that is reminiscent of Rudy Ruettiger’s determination to play with Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish, gives Mr. Vargas perspective. “I know the frustrations, the fear, how intimidating it can be,” he said of being a beginning musician. “I did it as an adult, so it’s still fresh in my memory.” And as for a new generation of musicians, Mr. Ward and Ms. Knight have no regrets about getting Analiese started in a pursuit she will be able to enjoy her whole life. “I think I’m doing well,” said Analiese. “I think I’m going to move forward—I really want to. I don’t want to quit.”
—Sarah Torribio firstname.lastname@example.org
COURIER photo/Steven Felschundneff Michael Vargasʼ piano studio is one of several live-work spaces on the second floor of the Claremont Packing House in Village West. Here, Mr. Vargas conducts a piano lesson with middle school student Bryan Huang.
Life in Claremont key to development of Danbury student
LEFT: Payton White ascends the climbing wall with the assistance of No Limits Wes Ferson at Danbury Elementary School last May. No Limits was started by paraplegic rock climber Mark Wellman so that special needs children could experience climbing. BELOW: Debra and Charles White photograph their son Payton as he ascends the climbing wall. No Limits provides the climbing wall and all of the adaptive technology so that any student, regardless of physical limitations, can try climbing.
COURIER photos/Steven Felschundneff Payton White looks up at his father Charles as the pair walk around the backyard of their Claremont home. Wednesday is Peytonʼs short day at Danbury, so the family makes time for afternoon recreation.
harles and Debra White, both former athletes, are no strangers to the principles of steadfast discipline and hard work, fundamentals they have transferred to their lives as parents to 11-yearold Payton, a student at Claremont’s Danbury Elementary School.
When doctor’s diagnosed Payton with cerebral palsy and said he would never crawl, let alone walk, those natural instincts kicked in. “They sat us down and told us he would have a laundry list of problems: he would never be able to sit up, never be able to chew food, never be able to crawl or walk. It was just a list of never, never, nevers,” Ms. White recalled, “but I was like, ‘you don’t know me.’ He might not have a quote-on-quote normal life, but we are going to do things. “You just love the kid to death and just try to do the best you can,” Ms. White continued. In finding homeopathic treatments to help Payton, who was nonverbal and unable to walk without assistance, the Whites have tried it all: acupuncture, hyperbaric oxygen therapy, magnet therapy, even a stem cell trial. In the summer of 2010, Ms. White, Payton and a caregiver traveled to Claremont for a week to give Danbury’s Conductive Education program, ConductAbility, a test. Founded more than 60 years ago, Conductive Education centers itself around the concept of neuroplasticity, or the idea that the brain can reorganize itself by forming new neural connections if taught how to do so. At Danbury, Conductive Education teachers work with students to do just this—incorporating rhythm and movement with verbal tasks. In a recent ConductAbility class, Danbury students took turns kicking a small red ball, instructed to first kick it with their right foot, and later with their left. “[Conductive Education] is a teaching method, not therapy,” said Danbury Conductive Education teacher Alicia Chatham. “It’s about ‘habilitating’ instead of rehabilitating, learning how to live with what you have.” No stranger to physical therapy, Ms. White
Teacher Alicia Chatham helps Payton White straighten his feet during a Conductive Education class last Wednesday at Danbury Elementary School. Peytonʼs parents moved to Claremont from Chicago in June of 2011 solely for the Conductive Education program at Danbury.
was a firm believer in Conductive Education’s methodology that goes beyond simply working with the body and the muscles. “You have to fix the signals in the brain if you want to change the body,” Ms. White notes. “Otherwise you are just jerry-rigging the body and as soon as you stop stretching him, he is going to go right back.” The class proved monumental for Payton. By the end of the summer, he had made significant strides, standing with the assistance of his teachers and a special walker, socializing and focusing in a way Ms. White had not seen before. It was a noticeable difference to both his teachers and his mother. “He just seemed to be more attentive when you talked to him and did well with the walker. He was chewing better and had improved his grip,” Ms. White said, who was particularly impressed with the improvement to his left hand, which is typically very rigid. “Nobody had even thought about working with his left hand. I was flabbergasted.” Though they lived clear across the country in
Chicago, Illinois, they knew what their next step would have to be, struggle or no struggle. “We fell in love with the program,” Ms. White remembered. “I called my husband and I told him we have to move.” Making the move Being able to enroll Payton in a Conductive Education program was the realization of a dream for the Whites, who had been struggling to find a program that wasn’t filled to capacity. The program in their hometown was booked solid, and so was the next closest program in Detroit, Michigan. Refusing to give up, Ms. White took to the Internet and found Danbury Elementary School. She was immediately drawn to the school’s integrated programming, providing Payton with the opportunity to attend regular classes while receiving training with ConductAbility. California’s sunny skies didn’t hurt either, in more ways than one. The harsh Chicago winters were proving to be counterproductive for Payton, according to his parents. “During the winter months in Chicago, when
you are in a wheelchair, you can’t get out. You are stuck inside,” Ms. White explained. “And we were noticing that in the spring he would make these great physical gains with his walker and he could be outside on his bike and his legs would get stronger and bigger, and then all that would go away with the winter.” Their Chicago townhome started to become a problem as well. As Payton grew, it became harder for him to crawl up and down the stairs of his 4-story townhome. Unable to navigate the stairs himself, his parents would have to carry him, but as the 11-year-old boy continued to grow, it became difficult. “He was getting bigger and I’m getting older,” Mr. White joked. “It wasn’t working out.” The Whites were pleasantly pleased to find Claremont as “the land of ranch-style homes,” sprawling one-story homes perfect for Payton. However, settling into their dream home proved to be a tedious, and occasionally frustrating, process.
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ABOVE: Payton White helps his caregiver Emilah Wang pick out a blanket while shopping at Target in La Verne recently. Through the Conductive Education classes, Payton has learned to communicate with hand gestures. LEFT: Debra and Charles White play with their son Payton at their north Claremont home. The couple bought the home because it is a single-story with a pool, which suits the needs of their son.
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With the Claremont housing market at a lull, it took a few months for them to find a reasonable home, and when they did locate one, they were told it would not be immediately available for move-in. Because Chicago’s real estate market was equally stagnant, Ms. White was forced to stay behind with the house and the belongings in hopes of finding a buyer. With a couple of blow-up mattresses, a recliner, stereo and TV set, Mr. White and his son set up home in a Claremont rental in time for Payton to
start at Danbury in the fall of 2011. The situation wasn’t ideal and at first Payton’s progress took a few steps back as he adjusted to the changes. “He was clearly unhappy and ready to go back to Chicago,” Ms. White said. “He had a hard time adjusting to the change in his routine, getting used to the new house, new friends, new caregiver. He was bonding with his old caregivers.” Ms. White joined her family in Claremont that December and while the family had to weather some more changes—moving back and forth between hotels and rentals during home renovations—the Whites have finally settled comfortably into their Miramar Avenue home. Payton is able to navigate
the home with ease and loves swimming in the backyard pool. Since establishing their new home base, the milestones have continued to mount for Payton. When asked about the biggest improvement, both parents’ answer is instantaneous: his decision-making. “Before it was always a guessing game, and he would become frustrated, and rightly so,” Ms. White said. “Can you imagine all day long just being dictated on what to do? These sorts of things help him out a lot.” “He is able to have more control of his life,” Mr. White added. His teachers have also noted the improvements. While Payton used to take more of an observer’s role in class, his teachers remarked that he is now an active participant, initiating movement rather than waiting for tasks to be assigned. “He is focused and more aware of his surroundings,” Ms. Catham said, adding that he is much more calm and collected in pointing out what it is he wants. The Whites say the new strides are allowing Payton the chance to express the typical pre-teen that he is, eager to get out and exercise, with the help of a specially-made bike, and he is a natural social butterfly, going out to lunch, the mall and the movies with his new Danbury friends. “He doesn’t even want anything to do with us,” his parents joked.
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As Payton continues to make strides with the help of ConductAbility—he has already taken steps with the assistance of teachers and a conductive education ladder—his parents appreciate Danbury’s hands-on approach, similar to their mentality all along. “[At Danbury] they challenge him. It’s not like he just sits there coloring or doing arts and crafts, which is fine within reason, but they give him that extra necessary push,” Mr. White said. The Whites look forward to continuing to play an active role in their son’s continued development with the help of the Danbury team. They stay as active with their son as possible and are currently preparing to install railing along
the hallways at home to aid him with his walking. “His teachers, the aids, they have all been fantastic,” Ms. White said. “Everyone works together as a team with us so we can give him his best chance in life.” To the Whites, the gifts ConductAbility gives their son are immeasurable. “He is just a lot more at peace,” she said.
—Beth Hartnett email@example.com
COURIER photo/Steven Felschundneff Program Director Borbala Goda helps Payton with his sweater at the conclusion of the Conductive Education class at Danbury Elementary School last week. Danbury is the only public school in the United States that offers Conductive Education.
COURIER photos/Steven Felschundneff Frank Gower has a private moment with 2 of his 3 sons, Jake, left, and Frankie on Sunday during the Thunderʼs playoff game against the Ligers at CHS. Though it would seem hard to coach 3 sons on one team, the result has been remarkable with the Thunder recording a perfect record this season.
The Gower bunch takes team play to a new level
first year I coached I loved it so much that I wanted to continue,” said the boys’ father, Coach Gower. The brothers all agree that playing for their dad is a good thing. “At least we get to play!” In addition, they agree they are probably not the coach’s favorite players. “We don’t know about that, he treats us like everyone else. Plus, we argue a lot with each other,” Frankie said. One thing that the 2 older Gower brothers do not agree on is a favorite professional sports team. Frankie and Jake are fans of the Lakers and Heat in the National Basketball Association, respectively. Conventional wisdom would say that brothers on the same team would have a special kind of chemistry on the court, but Jake sees it differently.
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rank Gower and his 3 sons— Frankie, Jake, and Tommy— make up over half of the starting line-up and coaching staff of the undefeated Thunder team in Claremont Youth Basketball. Some may ask how it is possible to keep 3 brothers on one team without challenges of sibling rivalries, all coached by dad at the same time.
Nevertheless, this only seems to motivate the Thunder, who have not lost this season and are preparing a playoff march for the boys fifth and sixth grade division. The core of the team started playing together 3 years ago. “This has been a great experience. I never wanted to coach them before, and I don’t coach them in baseball or football. We are more of a basketball family. I got volunteered into it, and wanted my guys on the team with me. The
Claremont Youth Basketball team Thunder, back row: from left Coach Ryan Slater, Ryan Slater, Siddarth Gummadi, Jacob Lopez, Frankie Gower and Coach Frank Gower. Front row: Xulian GarciaRamos, Yoon Cho, Jacob Aldridge, Jake Gower and Tommy Gower.
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“We play better with the other guys. My brothers both hog the ball. If I want to be passed to by them, I have to be wide open, or I have to get the ball myself,” Jake said. “I made sure to get players in the CYB draft that would pass the ball a lot, because I knew that was the only way this team would work with these guys on it,” Coach Gower teased. “I am partly
joking. My sons have all gotten better this season, and they have worked as hard as the others in learning to play as one team.” The team’s lone fourth grader is Tommy Gower, who made more adjustments to play in the older division with his brothers. “It’s hard, but getting easier. I am used to being the smallest guy on the court. My dad says I will get better more quickly, because playing with the bigger, faster guys forces me to make changes to my game. I have to play up to the opposition,” he said.
Parents should deliver encouragement and constructive criticism to their young athletes, the Gower brothers said. “Dad is a good coach even though he has not done it before coaching us. Mom is always at the games to keep our spirits up, and she always tells us to give her a smile while we’re on the court. It’s easy to get too serious sometimes,” Jake said.
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The Claremont Youth Basketball Thunder, in grey, take on the Ligers in a playoff game on Sunday in Claremont. The Thunder roster includes 3 boys from the same family.
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The competition within the family extends away from the basketball court. The brothers agree they have a normal family, with sibling rivalries. “Dad makes sure we get our homework done, but he takes basketball way more seriously. He knows we will take care of everything we need to do. Sometimes we have races to see who can fin-
ish their homework first after school. We always have arm wrestling battles as well,” Tommy said. Coach Gower always makes sure to keep the Thunder focused on the task at hand, and to keep strategy in mind when they play. “My sons, as well the rest of my team, have played aggressive defense all year. This makes my job easier. They are motivated and listen to me. They are disciplined. They pass the ball to the open man. They run without the ball and work to
get open. I don’t have to repeat myself when giving instructions to anyone on the team,” he said. What is certain is that the team, especially the Gowers, will have to celebrate if they win the championship this Sunday. “Maybe Disneyland, maybe a party. We will see,” Coach Gower said. “We have got to win first!”
—Chris Oakley firstname.lastname@example.org
COURIER photos/Steven Felschundneff Frank Gower gives some pre-game instructions to his Claremont Youth Basketball team before the start of their playoff game on Sunday at Claremont High School. The team, Claremont Thunder, is undefeated this season and includes 3 of his sons as players.
The Thunder watch another Claremont Youth Basketball game while waiting for their playoff matchup on Sunday in Claremont.
Tommy Gower looks for an open teammate on Sunday during the Thunderʼs game against the Ligers at the CHS Gym. Tommy is the youngest of 3 brothers on the team coached by their father Frank Gower.
Call 911…Do it now!
ighth-grade students at El Roble Intermediate School in Claremont learned that calling 911 is one of the first things to do when they encounter an unconscious or injured person. This was covered in a program conducted over 3 days last week by the Rotary Club of Claremont.
During the first day students developed an emergency action plan for their home. They were encouraged to share their plan with others in their family. On the second day they were presented with scenarios for which they needed to develop plans on how to handle the situation.
On the third day students learned what to do if they observed a person that was unconscious or injured. After checking the person’s vital signs they were instructed to call 911 or instruct someone to do so while they administer chest compressions. The real test came when students were given an opportunity to practice the technique on mannequins provided by the Rotary Club under the monitoring of trained instructors. The exercise was done utilizing the most up-to-date techniques supported by the American Red Cross. This was the 35th year the Rotary Club of Claremont has conducted the “Together We Prepare” program in Claremont. It is estimated that over 10,000 students have benefited from this program.
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