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She’s in tune with pianos, schools

Greenfield’s superintendent has been helping each school get an instrument

Recorder/Paul Franz
Susan Hollins with the piano she donated to the Greenfield Milddle School.

Recorder/Paul Franz Susan Hollins with the piano she donated to the Greenfield Milddle School. Purchase photo reprints »

GREENFIELD — Greenfield schools Superintendent Susan Hollins was on her first tour of the Greenfield Middle School in the summer 2008 when her eyes were drawn to a large piece of battered furniture in a classroom corner — buried under stacks of paper, coffee cups and school supplies.

It was a 6-foot Steinway concert grand piano, a “Ferrari of pianos” that could have reached as much as six digits in monetary worth, according to Hollins. But it was beaten — its wooden case damaged, its flat black top painted over, some of its white ivory keys ripped out.

The school officials giving her the tour waited as Hollins, dismayed, lifted the lid. Here, it was a different story: the piano had been restored and restrung about 20 years earlier and its main parts were in very good condition, she said.

In the five years since, Hollins, with the help of the Greenfield Education Foundation and department music teacher Elizabeth Markofski, had the rest of the piano fixed up to playable condition. And she has donated other pianos to the school department so that students and teachers will be able to use them for music and theater classes.

This summer, she found a Hardman baby grand piano at a Deerfield auction — which she estimates is worth somewhere between $2,500 and $7,500 — and donated it to Greenfield Middle School.

“It is difficult for someone who doesn’t know the instrument to buy one for a school unless it is a brand new piano,” said Hollins. “I could see that the piano had received a lot of work, which meant someone invested in restoring it to some degree. I played enough keys to see it played, and after that I just trusted my judgment.”

She also has connected the Federal Street School and the Academy of Early Learning with upright pianos.

“The pianos are just one example of her support for the arts,” said Markofski. “She accompanied multiple concerts this year both at the elementary and high school levels (and) I knew that when she looked at a piano she really knew what she was looking and listening for.”

An education in piano

The piano, decades ago, was Hollins’ ticket out of her 350-resident Maryland farm town.

She was a toddler when her older sister, Paula, started practicing piano. As Hollins family legend goes, one day her sister left the piano and a 4-year-old Hollins climbed up on the bench and started playing the music. Her mother signed her up for lessons.

Over the next 12 years, she bounced from teacher to teacher, each one suggesting she move up to a higher level. The classical piano lessons took her from Millington, Md., to Wesley College in Dover, Del., and then to Washington College in Chestertown, Md.

They ultimately led her about an hour-and-a-half drive away: to an audition at Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. During her last three years of high school, Hollins spent every weekend in Baltimore for piano lessons and other music training.

On weekdays, she would sneak downstairs in the middle of the night to practice; her father, who grew up with five piano-playing sisters, couldn’t stand hearing the instrument anymore. She entered a piano competition her senior year, tied for first place and then played with a youth orchestra.

Students who graduated from her high school (which served 30 towns and had 20 to 30 people in each graduating class) typically either stayed at home or went to the University of Maryland. Hollins, though, wanted to go somewhere else and pulled out a map of the country.

“I took a ruler and measured two inches from where I lived and looked for the biggest university I could find with a piano department,” she said. “I had no idea what I was doing, really.”

She applied to Boston University, the University of Michigan and the University of North Carolina. Soon, she was heading north.

At Boston University, she majored in piano and education. At one point, while preparing for a final recital, she practiced for seven hours each day.

For six years after college, Hollins was a music director and teacher at a school in Canton. Even after she began pursuing special education and administration, she still was involved in musical theater, taught lessons and created music groups for her daughter and her friends.

Supporting the arts

Hollins doesn’t play the piano much anymore, but she misses it. She made sure that her house had a room big enough to fit her baby grand Yamaha piano. She considers it part of her family.

When she first started studying the piano, she gravitated toward the works of Frederic Chopin and Claude Debussy, as well as a variety of modern and Spanish composers. Four decades later, her tastes haven’t changed that much.

“I never have enjoyed the sound of an electronic keyboard, even the good ones. They sound electronic,” she said. “Pianos resonate because they are designed to do so with a wooden case and strings. And there are pedals that allow you to control sound in a way that doesn’t happen with electronic keyboards.”

Hollins said that her own experience, of receiving lessons and music opportunities at a discounted cost, has made her adamant about not charging fees for students’ extracurricular activities.

It also has driven her, in a difficult fiscal time for public schools, to fight for the preservation of arts and music programs.

“Students who participate in music, dance, or visual art study do better in school,” she wrote in one of her superintendent journal entries. “The practice and skill-building teaches discipline about studying. Performing or showcasing your work teaches composure.”

“The study of any form of fine arts develops the senses,” said Hollins, “to listen more carefully, see things in more detail and notice more.”

You can reach Chris Shores at:
shores@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 264

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