At the Piano Passion music studio, Nyshia Cook, pictured here, wants all her students — from youngest to oldest — to do their best and develop a life-long appreciation for music. (Photo: Tina Ezell-Hull for Qcitymetro.com)
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Nyshia Cook is in the middle of hard-core summer contract negotiations.
“One hundred,” suggests the music teacher.
“Four,” counters Naseer Waite. He wiggles on the piano bench and grins at Cook, who grins right back. Naseer is five and certain he’s won this round.
Cook shakes her head, which sets her sparkly heart earrings to dancing; she has given in, and Naseer will have to practice only four pages of music – pages of notes, rests and both treble and bass clefs – before he comes back to Piano Passion studio for his next lesson.
The wall-papered Piano Passion, tucked into a suite of rooms in a film noir brick building near Independence Park, is Cook’s, well, passion, a spot where she can teach her students voice and classical piano, classical guitar and violin, and set them on the road to a lifelong love of sound. It’s her second site of operations in three years – the first was in her aunt’s basement – but the business grew quickly and needed more space. She’s anticipating another jump in growth when she hires her new staff to teach violin and guitar.
It’s old-school here. Visitors ring a doorbell to get into the building; a tall, slightly stooped and Windsor-knotted gentleman opens the door and points toward the studio. Cook’s office, which houses file cabinets, a desk, and a black-and-white upright piano, has a view of a tree-shaded parking lot.
Cook, who studied voice and chorus but realized she couldn’t read music, is self-taught on the piano. She found piano books, started picking out notes and scales – “I figured if THIS is middle C,” she said, “then THAT would be D and on and on.”
Simple? For her, yes. One of the first songs that she played for the teacher who didn’t teach her to play was “Fur Elise,” a classic. It got her into a music program.
“I didn’t know (playing Fur Elise) was something amazing,” she says with a wave of her short-nailed fingers.
She sees her studio as more than a place of music. It’s a trifecta of possibility: she’s young, African American, and she’s an entrepreneur in classical music, a field many kids don’t experience. When she’s mentoring around town, children ask, “Who do you work for?” She replies that she works for herself, which brings another question: You mean you can be African American and work for yourself?
Cook, soft-voiced but bubbly, takes students of all ages and abilities. Her youngest ones are three; her oldest are mature enough to perform in the studio with gospel great Shirley Caesar. And there’s everybody and every level between. She can start teaching at the basics, coach someone who is getting ready for college entrance, or lend an ear and aid to professionals.
She loves them all but is fond of her younger clients because she loves seeing growth and she adores children (she still works as a nanny). That doesn’t mean she’s a pushover when it comes to the kids, however. As her students grow in ability, she increases her expectations. Don’t come in for a lesson without your sheet music. Don’t ask, when presented a new piece of music, “Where do I start?” She’s not sure what breeds the inevitable uncertainty – perfectionism, perhaps, that’s rubbed off – but she helps students tamp it down and learn to trust themselves.
She runs the school year on semesters and a light summer-school schedule. During the year, her students perform at all sorts of venues and conferences, and she takes a group to the National Federation of Music Clubs, which gives them a chance to perform and compete.
During lessons, the students play what they have prepared from a previous class. Then Cook speaks with them about theory and technique, and sometime during the lesson she’ll slip in a few questions about their lives: What’s going on in school? What’s happening with your dog?
At the end of the fall semester, the school holds a recital in CPCC’s Tate Hall. Cook realizes she could hold the recitals at a smaller venue – a church, say, or a school cafeteria with good acoustics – but having an actual theater gives the students a different knowledge of performance, from studio to backstage to onstage. Even if they decide not to perform professionally after they leave her, they will understand the backstage experience.
The 28-year-old doesn’t expect all of her students to be lifelong performers. She does expect them to learn to play, do their best, and like and appreciate music.
But when she comes across a student who is at first reluctant but grows to the point that music is his or her life, to her, “that’s really what’s amazing.”
Getting there: From the Transit Center, take Bus 27 outbound to Seventh Street and Hawthorne. The studio is at 2150 Park Drive.