PIF Students Get Into Swing of New Year

Milan Johnson, 9, a third grader at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School in Portland, had one particular goal in mine when she decided to learn piano.

“I want to learn the ‘Happy Birthday’ song so I can play it for my (relatives),” she says.

Milan is one of 100 students at King enrolled in Play It Forward’s piano, guitar and ukulele classes. Another 80 students are enrolled at KairosPDX, a public charter school in North Portland, according to Travis Johnson, who oversees PIF’s programs at both schools.

Play It Forward offers both group as well as individual lessons at both schools, and provides free instruments to students. During one of her Tuesday PIF classes, Milan and other students took the time to share why they are excited to be studying music this school year.

“I thought it would be really fun to have a piano,” Milan says. Both she and her classmate, Josie Tanner, 8, say they particularly enjoy working with their piano teacher, Yena Leehalsel, who is in her second year as a Play It Forward instructor. Their teacher is patient and is gradually helping her students learn more and more complex piano lessons, they note.

“She’s nice and just lets you do something simple and then slowly works up,” Josie says, adding she’s fascinated by what the piano can do. “I think it’s interesting, like all of the different things you can do, like finger numbers and piano keys,” Josie says.

Leehalsel, a native of Seoul, S. Korea, says she’s sharing the gift of music with youngsters like Milan and Josie just as she herself was given it by the elders in her life. “I grew up playing piano and listening to my dad play guitar,” Leehalsel says, noting she performed in a church choir growing up. “Music was – and is – my life.”

Leehalsel adds that she believes “learning music is kind of essential” for elementary students. The rhythms and patterns students learn help them do better academically, she notes, because “all rhythm is mathematical” and yet music is also emotional.

“Students will say, ‘I’m not good at math,” she says, “and I’ll say, ‘Soon you will be.’”

Johnson, who teaches guitar and ukulele, echoes his colleague’s sentiments. “Music gives you a way to experience math,” he says, likening playing it to playing baseball. It’s one thing to read about baseball, he says, a whole different thing to actually play the game.

“It forces (students) to imagine the world differently,” he says, adding music is a gateway to physics as well. The width of guitar strings, for example, affects the pitch of the notes played on them, a concrete illustration of the physics of sound, he says.

Johnson’s students at King include Brooklyn Don, 8; Poppy Dolson, 8; and Johnelle McGhee, 9. All of the students are third graders and were happy to be learning their instruments.

“I always liked guitar,” Johnelle says, adding he enjoys the exercises Johnson gives him. “It’s like you’re moving up and down the strings,” Johnelle says.

Poppy says she took up ukulele because “it’s easier to play than piano or a cello and stuff.” She hopes to learn how to play well enough to perform one of her favorite songs. “I also like to listen to ‘Shout,’” she says. “It’s a song by Tears for Fears.”

Johnson says Play It Forward is helping these kids learn culture, history and a sense of purpose. 

“Music inspires people,” he says. “It shows us something about ourselves. People have a tactile skill coming out of a music lesson.”