The Playground

The Simply Music blog

Simply Music Teacher – Janita Pavelka

Found in: Simply Music Community

When you talk to Janita Pavelka, it’s hard not to get swept away by the rapid-fire enthusiasm she applies to everything. If she were a musical term, it might be ‘allegro’: with speed and joy. Everything is an adventure and everything is communicated in a way that leaves you enthused and inspired. It’s no wonder she’s such a successful and well loved teacher, mentor and leader, in music, her family and her community.

In her home state of Nebraska, Janita has been the head of a very bright comet, pioneering what is now a large and very active community of teachers, who are much admired in the SM world as an example of the value of organization and shared support. When she’s not teaching piano to a substantial studio of students, conducting teacher conference calls or guiding people along the path of teaching, she’s otherwise busy homeschooling her own four children, coaching kids in entrepreneurship and contributing to her church community.

I grew up in a musical family, nothing extraordinary, but it definitely valued music education. Neither of my parents were college educated – my Dad is a farmer, my Mom is a farm wife – but my Mom’s desire for her children to be musically self-expressed stemmed from her childhood piano lessons experience. She had a strict piano teacher with a ruler who sat on her left side because her left hand made more mistakes. Of course after numerous whacks, my mom cried & cried, so my grandma let her quit, which left a deep void in my mom’s life. She always wanted to play piano as my grandpa played by ear and she loved hearing his music. Both she and my dad sang in the choir and played in the school band, but that wasn’t what she craved. My mom had all four of her children play a band instrument and had three out of four of us play piano. She was very adamant about having us practice, and her rule was, “You live in our house, you eat supper, you play piano until you leave for college”. There was no option to quit, for which I’m very thankful now because it made me a better person. I took piano lessons for eleven years in the traditional world, but hit a wall with music reading skills. My brother plays and reads music really well, as he thrived on the reading-based approach, but I always felt like I lived in his shadow. (I would have blossomed on the Simply Music method as a child!) I just wasn’t as good as him, or so many other people I could name, so I did not major in music at college, even though I scored high in music and arts on interest tests. My first profession was a mental health social worker and then an elementary teacher. But all along I was teaching music at church, or playing piano for church, or teaching music at a summer camp, etc.

After I married and had children, I started teaching traditional piano lessons. After a few short years of teaching traditionally, I was discouraged and ready to ‘throw in the towel’. I talked to a friend whose son was a student of Cathy Hirata’s in California who said, “You know, you really should teach Simply Music”. “What? Sinfully Music?” I asked. That conversation was in January of ’03, but I dismissed it as a California thing, and didn’t think of it again until June of 03 when I saw an actual ad in a homeschooling magazine and that’s when I called Neil. He made my head spin because the things he was saying I knew were true, but I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. I knew only one way for thirty years and I was skeptical! I said, “OK Neil, I would like to speak to three real teachers. One of them, Lynn Frank, hopped on the piano and said, “These are the songs they are playing in Level 1”. I said, “You’re kidding me, that’s great- sounding music”. First of all, I could stand to listen to that as a teacher, and as a parent! Being a conservative Midwesterner, I had to know that I know that I know…  I called Neil back and said, “Neil, I’ll tell you what, I’ll sign up with Simply Music, but I’m only going to teach my children for the first three months”. I loved it. They loved it and at the end of the school year, I converted my studio to Simply Music.Since then, I’ve taught the Simply Music program for thousands of hours and to scores of students over the last eight years.
Were you the first teacher in the Omaha area?

Yes, I began in the summer of 2003 and Laurie Richards soon joined me in 2004. Laurie and I worked well together as our strengths really complemented one another. We embraced everything Simply Music had to offer; the SM philosophy and how it can change a person’s life, not only musically but in every way. Our studios doubled almost over night as we had a local TV station’s consumer reporter challenge our statement, “We can teach you to play piano in 12 weeks.” He said, “Oh, really?” The station taped him before he started, mid-term, and when he played live on TV at the end. We had over 120 calls, which catapulted our studios into large numbers, and brought on more teachers in the Omaha area.
It really seems like you’ve done a lot not just to attract students for yourself, but also to attract teachers to the program. It’s like you’ve been just as interested in building Simply Music as you’ve been in building your studio.

I believe that the more teachers we have in the program, the more students will be able to experience Simply Music and there are enough students for everyone. The Omaha area could never be saturated; even here in rural Nebraska we need more teachers, because first comes the teachers and then come the students. The teachers are the key in growing Simply Music. Yes, I love talking to potential teachers, because it can change their life on many levels. Musically, I feel “reborn” as a musician. When I started Simply Music, I could play nothing without the written page. I was your typical small church musician. I couldn’t play off a lead sheet or chord chart; through the Simply Music Accompaniment program my chording skills have come alive! I had no repertoire – I didn’t know any blues, jazz, I couldn’t transpose, compose, improvise, make arrangements, do variations – I am just not the same musician now as I was eight years ago.

There were three reasons I went into Simply Music: Firstly, because I felt like musically there was so much more inside me I couldn’t access. A reading-based approach comes from without, you’re always sourcing your material from the page, but Simply Music is mainly sourced from within. Of course we’re all musical beings, but this approach is so much more creative. The second reason was for my children. I wanted my children to be above and beyond what I ever dreamed of as musicians, and they are; they can play circles around me! All four of them play two instruments and they also play by ear. This morning one was figuring out a blues version of “This Little Light of Mine”. They listen to iTunes and figure out their favorite song and what key it’s in and they all have a repertoire. And the third reason was for my students. I want my students to not quit piano and to have music as a lifelong companion.
You’re also involved with going into the public school system and doing continuing education courses for music educators.

I am energized by a bigger picture of Simply Music and how we can have a whole world playing music. In Nebraska we have professional development workshops which our public school teachers attend to keep their skills sharp. I have presented Simply Music Workshops to various music teachers and have had a fantastic response. It has been like giving a cool drink to one in a dry and thirsty land. It is a six hour workshop where I use the Simply Music Workshop material which teaches a contemporary, blues, accompaniment and classical song, along with composition, improvisation, arrangements and variations skills. The goal of the Workshop is to train the music teachers how to teach a classroom of students how to play the piano. There was one music teacher who wrote in the evaluation, “I have not played both hands together in 30 years on piano”. My other reason of course, besides getting these students hooked on piano, is recruiting teachers.
You’re also starting workshops on praise songs, is that correct?

Yes, we held a Worship Workshop in Omaha in March which stemmed from a conversation with Missy Murphy, a teacher in Omaha, as she had this vision of teaching teenagers the Accompaniment program for a praise & worship band in a Christian school. Ernest Amstalden’s heart is in raising the next generation of worship leaders, along with Ray Nelson’s. What we were planning on was 25 teachers, but we had 50 teachers and 35 students. We had Simply Music teachers from all over the US and one couple from Canada. My vision is seeing 50 Worship Workshops across the US from the teachers who attended in the next year.
You also contributed to the recent book about Simply Music. One of the things I appreciated from that was what you said about the value of service. I know for example you have your students regularly go out to nursing homes and play for the residents.  What do you think is so important about giving music back to the community?

Service is so important as children need to be trained to think of others. The elderly love having children visit, their music and the company at the assisted nursing centers. It is a win-win situation because the students benefit – they have to come prepared, they learn to play in public, they develop self-confidence, they hear the good feedback and the praise, to the point that they’d like to experience that success again. Simply Music is built for public performance in that the proof is in the playing. We also played for the Salvation Army, background music, outside festivals, and more.
What’s the thing you love most about teaching and being involved with Simply Music?

What I love most about teaching Simply Music is picturing a special future for my students and for fellow (or future) teachers. One day in a new Level One class, I played a Dreams Come True arrangement and my students looked at me like I was an amazing pianist, and I said, “If you stick with Simply Music, you will be playing circles around me”. I love being able to picture a special future for my students, whether they are children or adults. I also like the fact that someone who wants to teach Simply Music can have a value-added business which can change their life and their students’ lives. And if we can make a difference in our own world to help people be musically self-expressed then that will eventually change the world.
Laurie Richards adds: “When I began teaching Simply Music, Janita was the only other teacher in the Omaha NE area. She was an amazing support to me as we met regularly to talk about students, curriculum, marketing, and pooling our resources to reach more people. Janita was the one who said, “We’ve got to recruit more teachers!” I jumped on the bandwagon with her, and over the next several years our teacher base grew to around 15 teachers. The Omaha area became known as the “cooperative teacher” area because of Janita’s vision and influence. She has a way of uniting people.

“When I was in a serious car accident in 2006, Janita was the one who told the other two (at that time) teachers, “We’ve got to help Laurie out and teach her classes for her while she’s recuperating”. These teachers taught all of my 60 students at my home studio for two months without asking for a dime in compensation.

“We Omaha teachers were understandably heartbroken when Janita announced that she would be moving to Central Nebraska, away from our region. But on the flip side, we were elated because we knew that Simply Music was about to infiltrate another region of the state! Sure enough, since Janita moved to her farm in Oxford, NE, at least six new teachers have been trained and licensed to teach Simply Music in central NE. It is impossible not to catch her enthusiasm and passion for this method.

“Janita used to start her days off by exercising while watching Neil Moore on her teacher training videos. She would do this almost every day. One day her husband came into the room during her exercise/training video time and said, ‘I’m going to have to start wearing a blue sweater vest!’ and turned on his heels and left!