Mozart, Brahms and role reversal
District educational hierarchy turned upside down during weekly piano lessons
Sitting on a piano bench next to his student, Kody Willnauer pointed to notation on the sheet music warning the score was about to jump three octaves.
"You know these hands are going to go together when I get there," the student said.
To put the student at ease, Willnauer offered to play the left hand, while the student played the right hand. As they played the Mozart piece, the two shared laughs at a few of the student's mistakes.
The scene is probably commonplace as teachers introduce students to the intricacies of playing the piano. This particular student-teacher relationship does have one unique feature. The teacher is De Soto High School senior Kody Willnauer, and the student is USD 232 Superintendent Sharon Zoellner.
"He's a great teacher," Zoellner said. "Very patient.
"I've always had an interest in learning to play an instrument. I remember trying to play my sister's clarinet. I don't know why I didn't start playing.
"Three years ago, I bought an electric piano. I tried to learn on my own, but I gave up."
Zoellner realized she needed the discipline of a structured learning system and teacher. She tried to arrange lessons with De Soto High School vocal music instructor Mary Etta Copeland, but the two couldn't coordinate busy schedules, she said.
Meanwhile, Willnauer, who earned the highest-possible score for the oboe at the state music festival and is one of three drum majors on the award-winning Wildcat march band, starting giving piano lessons to Johnson County youngsters.
Resolution of supply and demand came during a car wash last summer to raise money for the Wildcat band's New Year's trip to Dallas. After learning of Zoellner's search for a piano teacher, Kent Willnauer suggested his son.
Just as the school year was beginning, a somewhat nervous Willnauer took his first adult student, who happened to be his superintendent.
"I was intimidated at first," he said. "With any new student, it's the introduction."
Zoellner didn't start from scratch. She knew how to read the treble line from her high school choir days. With that background, teacher and student have completed the first book of instructional pieces and are now one-third of the way through the second of three books.
"When she finishes the third, she should be able to play anything," Willnauer said.
Zoellner was a "good student" who was did her homework, he said.
"I do try to practice everyday if I can," Zoellner said. "I was doing pretty well getting up at 5:30 every morning to practice for 30 minutes, but I went on vacation last week."
Commitment and practice determined how accomplished students became, Willnauer said. Still, he didn't demand his students practice, understanding they had different goals, he said. Prefacing his comments with words of deference to his superintendent, Willnauer explained his view of fine arts education.
"There shouldn't be pressure on music like there is pressure in school for math or science," he said. "Music is a soulful thing. The arts need to be enjoyed for the experience without the pressure."
Since taking on Zoellner, Willnauer added two more adult students. Although he had no preference, he found adults grasped concepts quicker because of their greater knowledge of history and other background subjects, he said.
"One usually only has to tell adults something once," he said. "With younger students, I prepare four or five ways to approach something, so if they don't get one I can try something different."
"Modalities," his student the educator said, explaining the teaching technique.
Zoellner said she found the piano relaxing, frustrating and compelling.
"I can't sit down and play for a few minutes," she said. "Once I start playing, I'm there for an hour -- it's so intriguing to me.
"I don't know that I have a goal. I would like someday to be able to sit down and play Christmas carols with the family. I have no aspirations to perform."
Teacher and student have moved from strangers to friends during the six months of lessons.
"I wouldn't say we knew each other at all," Willnauer said. "I just knew what a superintendent was."
The friendship was helpful, Zoellner said. Willnauer kept her informed of school happenings, such as how the sports teams were doing. For his part, Willnauer said he got a better grasp of the complexities and work needed to keep a school district running.
Last month, Zoellner stirred up music lovers in the district when she asked the USD 232 Board of Education to consider eliminating fifth-grade band because of lost instruction time. Kent Willnauer was among those who spoke out against the move at a board meeting earlier this month.
The flap earned comment in metropolitan area newspapers and brought a TV crew to the last Board meeting, but it didn't come up during the lessons.
Willnauer said he had his views but that the lessons weren't the place for such discussions. He said he did tease his father that he would have to be compensated if the older Willnauer's stance cost him a student.
The young piano teacher had nothing to worry about, Zoellner said. She respected his father's views and the "healthy discussions" that came from her broaching the topic with the board.
"I have a great relationship with his dad," she said. "Kody's out of the picture here.
"The instruction time is critical. We're going to try to come to a compromise that will still give those students the opportunity to participate in band."
How much more instructional time Willnauer will provide Zoellner is uncertain. He would continue to give piano lessons in Johnson County next fall, when he enrolls at Kansas University. He hoped those included Zoellner's work on the more-complicated third instructional book.
Whether or not they advance through the third book, Zoellner said she remained committed to lifetime learning. She said her experience with Willnauer illustrated she was in the right environment for that goal.
"We have incredible students," she said. "From elementary to high school students, I learn from them every single day, from elementary school to high school."