The keys to staying young

MARSHALL – Angie Pankratz doesn’t look like the typical beginning piano student, but she was, nonetheless, one of eight who took part in a piano recital Saturday afternoon at Prairie Home Hospice in Marshall.

Saturday not only marked her first piano recital, but it also served as a birthday party for 87-year-old Pankratz.

“It’s wonderful,” Pankratz said. “I think it’s really great when the kids get together like this and see others doing it, too. It means a lot.”

Learning to play the piano had been on Pankratz’ bucket list for decades. About four months ago, she made the decision to begin taking piano lessons from Nancy Long.

“It was something I wanted to do all my life,” Pankratz said. “So I finally got around to it when I was 87 years old. But it’s never too late. I’m glad I did.”

Pankratz said she appreciated that Long agreed to teach piano to her.

“Nancy is a wonderful teacher,” Pankratz said. “If there are any kids who want to learn how to play piano and learn what it’s all about, she is really, really good.”

Long, who has taught piano lessons for 43 years, said she thoroughly enjoys what she does.

“I’ve taught three generations of students before,” she said. “I grew up loving music and remember going to college and majoring in English. Everyone kept saying I couldn’t be a band director because I was a woman. Well, time went on and that changed. I found out, yes, I could.”

The best part, Long said, is teaching people to enjoy music.

“I enjoy it,” she said. “I love helping kids who don’t know how to play learn how to play songs.”

Long admitted that Pankratz was the oldest student she had ever taught before, but that she had approached the situation as if she were like any other beginner.

“I started Angie with the beginner books, just like I do normally,” Long said. “The process depends on the person, even with children, because each person is so different.”

Long used current piano students, Claire and Timmy Boersma, as a case in point.

“The brother and sister I’m teaching right now are so different from each other and teaching them is entirely different,” Long said.

Progress also differs, Long said, depending on how much a student practices and whether or not the person has natural instincts or not.

“Some love it and some fight it,” she said. “Some just have natural instincts, like the little girl (Gracie Herigon) who played piano with her grandma (Nancy Vierstraete). She’s only had about two months of lessons. She just has so much natural ability. She’s obviously been surrounded by music.”

While she has enjoyed learning something new, the process has taken patience, Pankratz said, because her memory isn’t as sharp as it once was.

“The hardest part is the memory and retention, the holding everything that you learn,” Pankratz said.

Long is proud of Pankratz for trying something new, especially at her age. Teaching piano to elderly students has been something Long has wanted to do for some time.

“Angie is the oldest student I’ve ever had,” Long said. “But I used to work at the nursing home and it’s something I’ve wanted to do. I’ve always wanted to teach someone who has never had the opportunity but has wanted to learn. So I think it’s great. I’ve taught adults before, but not at that age.”

Long pointed out that most elderly people she has encountered believe they are too old to try learning something new, but she tries to encourage it.

“They think they can’t learn, but that’s not true,” Long said. “It’s the best way to keep your mind active. Learning something totally new is the best way.”

Long also feels that playing piano is the best physical therapy around for those suffering from arthritis.

“I have a lot of arthritis, but I think playing the piano is what keeps me going,” Long said. “I think playing helps me a lot. I’m able to play in the city band and also in the community band at the college. I like to play.”

While Pankratz is learning to play the piano herself, she said she also appreciates the abilities of others.

“I don’t have a favorite song of my own yet,” she said. “All music is a favorite. Nancy usually plays for me after we have our lesson. She’ll play for half an hour or so and it’s just wonderful sitting and listening to her play.”

At the conclusion of the recital Saturday, Long tickled the ivories with one final song – “Happy Birthday” – and when everyone was finished wishing Pankratz a happy birthday, they enjoyed cake and ice cream in her honor.

When asked what she had planned for the future, Pankratz said: “I think I’ll continue with the lessons.”