A new student walking into Meldene Gruber’s home might assume they will only learn to play the piano. But Gruber will make sure the student learns more than that. “I think everybody should be exposed to music,” she said.
Gruber has been giving piano lessons for more than 45 years. She approaches piano instruction in a way that incorporates history, builds discipline and promotes teamwork.
“It takes consistent commitment,” she said. “There are some times you really need to knuckle down and put out your best effort.”
“This spills over into life,” Gruber said.
Gruber has been giving lessons to all ages from her Rehoboth Beach home for about 10 years. She sees 26 students every week – 18 children and eight adults – and she is still accepting students through her website at delawarepinaolessons.com.
She organizes annual recitals at Lutheran Church of our Savior in Rehoboth Beach, where she is also the director of two hand bell choirs.
“It’s definitely not boring,” she said. “Everybody’s different; everybody learns differently.”
Gruber said she could notice something new in a piece of music she has heard hundreds of times. “You’re always learning,” she said.
Gruber teaches mostly classical music, but – at the behest of some of her students – she’s taught pieces by Elton John and Queen.
Gruber said she also incorporates history into the lesson. She said informing her students about the writer and the historical context of a piece of music changes the way the student conveys the music.
Teamwork also plays into Gruber’s lessons. She said she will sometimes bring multiple students in at once and have them play together, even if it means three adults are squeezed onto one piano bench simultaneously playing one piece of music. “It’s a real team effort,” she said. “And I think that’s very important.”
Originally from Orange County, Calif., Gruber and her family spent five years in Maryland before her husband – an aeronautical engineer – decided to retire in Delaware. “We like living on the coast,” Gruber said. She has two sons who live in Silver Spring, Md.
Gruber earned her bachelor’s degree in piano performance from University of Southern California School of Music in 1970. Her first job after college was with Yamaha Music Schools, where she taught a class of children from age 4 to 7.
The students’ parents were required to attend the class, a rule Gruber has carried over into her private classes. “Whether they understand music or not doesn’t matter,” she said. Gruber said it is important for parents of young children to provide support and encouragement outside of the lesson.
Gruber’s parents were not musicians, but her mother took piano lessons briefly when Gruber was young. “She wanted us to have music. To her, obviously, it was important,” she said.
Gruber began taking piano lessons at age 8. She said when she was young she wanted to be a concert pianist. “As a kid, I was very serious about my music,” she said.
At 17, Gruber took on her first piano student – a friend, who sat with her for a half-hour lesson once a week. “I knew then I was going to be a teacher,” she said.
Gruber’s grade school curriculum also included music education. “There was a piano in every classroom, and every teacher could play and play well,” she said. “I benefited highly from that kind of support.”
In many public schools today, children are exposed to music class only once a week, she said. “Things have changed. I’m glad I grew up when I did,” she said. “Music isn’t dead totally, but I think it suffered a serious blow.”
Studies have shown children who are exposed to music education test higher in other areas, but music and art are often the first programs to suffer budget cuts, Gruber said.
“That’s where they cut,” she said. “If it weren’t for the private teacher, where would our musicians in today’s symphony orchestras come from?”
Gruber said most of her students are not preparing for careers in the symphony; they play for self-fulfillment.
One of her former students – a 12-year-old girl from California – was not popular in school and had a hard time keeping her grades up. “I think it was an effort for her to keep a C average,” Gruber said. “She was OK on the piano.”
Gruber said the girl told her, “When I’ve had a bad day at school, I come home, and I sit down to the piano and I play my pieces, and I feel so much better.”
“I thought, ‘Wow,’” Gruber said. “If I can give somebody that inner peace from the music, that’s extremely gratifying.”