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Thinking of learning a new skill during self-isolation? Mike Nemeth has an idea.
'People are looking for something to do, something to learn,' Nemeth said one afternoon this past week. 'If you've got extra time, I have the perfect option.'
Nemeth, who's in his late 50s, started teaching piano in late 2017. Before that, he was self-employed engineer, designing solar energy systems and playing at Cedar Valley Bible Church services.
'A family a church asked if I'd be interested in teaching their son,' Nemeth recalled.
Nemeth started his own piano lessons at age six, dropping them after a few years 'because I was young and stupid, but I've kept with it ever since. It was a stress reliever in college, and I've continued learning on my own and with random teachers at random times.'
He had no teaching experience when he took on his first student.
'I kind of learned about it as I went along,' he said. 'I really just wanted to pass along what I do, rather than abide by some formal rules.'
Nemeth soon hit on a system that works.
'I went with the philosophy that I know how to play, I can play pretty well and there's a lot I can teach,' he said. 'So I'm going to pass along the things that I know.'
Success with that first student encouraged Nemeth to launch Fairfax Piano after just a few months.
''OK, I've got one student, I can do more,'' Nemeth recalls thinking. 'I started with him and advertised a little bit, and got a couple more students. I transformed my front room into my studio — I live here, but it's pretty professional, too.'
Nemeth typically has upward of two dozen students who take 30- or 45-minute weekly lessons. They've ranged in age from five to 72.
'I'm classically trained, so I start from that,' he said. 'You show them the basics — here's how you move your fingers, here's where the notes are and where you find everything.'
His approach helps people who have never played to develop fundamental skills.
'For quite a while, they don't even realize what's happening,' Nemeth said. 'I call them finger exercises. It's the basics of how music is put together.
'I use a lot of method books and printed curriculum material, but I don't stick with them religiously.'
Nemeth's goal is a student who can read and learn new compositions, instead of learning by rote.
'If you pick up an unfamiliar piece of music, you may struggle with it but you can still figure it out,' he said.
Pretty early on, Nemeth assigns his students to write their own pieces. He's collaborating with one now.
'He has a melody, so I'm going to help with the harmonies,' he said. 'That's pretty cool.'
Nemeth was surprised to learn his younger students tend to be more patient.
'It's counterintuitive,' he said. 'They realize, 'I don't know this stuff,' and they're learning step by step, and some of this is hard. When you're doing this stuff, you're training your brain and your brain has to grow these new connections. That takes time.'
Nemeth developed piano tuning as a sideline of sorts. Most lessons are in the late afternoon and evening, so he can tune pianos during the day.
'I've turned my own piano for decades, mostly out of self-defense,' he said. 'I would end up spending a fortune on a tuner coming out on a regular basis. I've learned over time.
'It's a lot of trial and error — way more error than trial.'
Nemeth is grateful he hasn't lost any students as Iowa's COVID-19 pandemic measures took effect. After a two-week self-isolation, he's teaching two or three at his studio, but most have shifted online.
'I have not lost any students through this whole process and I'm quite pleased with that,' he said. 'It's been a learning experience, figuring out how to do this online.'
After trying a few others, Nemeth settled on the Zoom videoconferencing platform.
'I can see what material they're using,' he said. 'I can read the notes.'
And the job still has its rewards, even if they're now delivered remotely.
'Whether it's online or face to face, if they make some breakthrough and they've been struggling and been working on something for weeks, that's a good day,' Nemeth said.
He recalled one student he'd assigned a writing exercise.
'She didn't know how good she was,' he said. 'They were really short pieces, but what she did had a depth to it and it was a nice little cohesive whole. It had interesting little parts in it, and that made my week.
'It's amazing what she was able to do on her own.'
Many small businesses in the Corridor still are at work during the pandemic. If you know of one you think might make for an intriguing 'My Biz' feature, let us know by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
At a glance
• Owner: Mike Nemeth
• Business: Fairfax Piano
• Address: 6901 Saint Patricks Rd., Fairfax
• Phone: (319) 846-3333
• Website: fairfaxpiano.com