Susane Reis literally had a dream one night of opening a piano academy. Three years ago she brought that dream to life at Eugene Piano Academy downtown.
Reis – her name is pronounced “Suzanne Reece” – grew up the daughter of Azorean immigrants in Turlock, California, a farm town in the Central Valley. Her first language is Portuguese. By her junior year in high school she had begun playing (keyboards, guitar and vocals) and touring around the country with a rock band, Built Like Alaska, whose sound she describes as “heavy mellow.” (Hear her perform with them on YouTube.)
But after nine years on the road, she began to realize that particular road wasn’t leading anywhere she wanted to go. “I can either live my life doing this – being a gypsy – or settle down,” she said. She headed for college, getting a bachelor’s degree in piano performance at California State University, Stanislaus, and then came to the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance, where she got her master’s in piano pedagogy in 2011.
“I had a dream that I was going to open up my own music school. So I finished my degree. Got my master’s degree. And a week later I was setting up in this building.”
“This building” is the pleasantly open corner storefront at 507 Willamette Street, across Fifth Avenue from the train station. The front room contains about a dozen electronic keyboards and one grand piano, and it offers plenty of space for energetic kids to move around in.
Reis jumped into the business with little research or business knowledge, she admits, but with a strong sense that Eugene needed someplace for children to learn piano in a group setting – as opposed to private, one-on-one lessons.
“2011 was a terrible time to open a business,” she says, but notes that she is a very stubborn person. “I thought, if I build it, they will come.”
Now she has 150 students taking weekly lessons from her and two other instructors at the academy. The youngest student is 2 years old; the oldest, 92.
Reis uses the Harmony Road music curriculum, which is a modified version of the Yamaha instruction method. Devised by Jan Keyser of Portland, the Harmony Road method incorporates a lot of singing, dancing and other movement into the lessons, especially for the youngest students.
The group setting is also important, Reis says. Parents are required to attend with their children. “That puts more responsibility on the student and the parent,” she says. “And the children are learning in a group – so there’s a healthy competition. The kids learn at an insanely fast pace.”
Tuition ranges from $11.75 for a toddler’s 30-minute weekly lesson to $18 for the 45-minute sessions attended by children from kindergarten through sixth grade.
Reis also offers private lessons, and – yes – she teaches adults.
“Adults are much more difficult to teach,” she says. “They’re spent their whole life knowing it all. So it’s hard to slow adults down. But their progress is going to be the same – or slower – than a child’s.”
She jokes that she wants to spray paint a slogan on the walls of the academy: “If you practice slowly, you will learn quickly!”
A few years ago, Reis met a man at an event in Eugene. As they began chatting, it turned out he was also from around Turlock, California. And, weirdly, he – like her – had been seriously injured in a childhood car accident. And, to cap it off, he had spent years touring in a rock band, and they had lots of mutual music world friends.
She and Jason Davis are to be married – in Turlock – June 6.
Eugene Piano Academy
507 Willamette Street, Eugene