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Children at Washington Elementary School haven't gotten much of a break in life.
Nearly all of them come from poor households where parents speak 90 or so languages and dialects among them. Some of the children live in homeless shelters.
A few, though, are getting the chance to experience the joys of music by learning to play the piano and early testing shows it is helping their math and reading scores.
Children at Washington and two other elementaries in the Salt Lake City district are taking after-school piano lessons through an easy-to-use Web-based program set up by Daynes Music Co. and developed by the University of Utah.
University faculty are hoping to offer similar interactive lessons, called UPlay Piano, to students across Utah.
"It's my favorite thing to do," said Monse Chavez, 8, one of the many students who enrolled when the program began last year and opted to come back this semester.
Said 11-year-old Stevie Good: "This is awesome. It's like learning a whole new language."
Good learned to play "Happy Birthday" for his mother, but his favorite is the more complicated theme song to the "Indiana Jones" movies, which he happily plays by heart.
Rather than plowing through traditional method books, children interact with animated stories that convey musical concepts via computers. Students also play games to ensure they've grasped each lesson.
Through a series of grants, Washington boosts eight keyboards with an enrollment of 38 students. They meet after school, four days a week, for 40 minutes each session. Supporters are pushing to integrate the program into the school's main curriculum.
Lessons start off with students meeting the Keys family. There's an interactive kid named Francis who hangs out on the F key; Dusty the dog, who likes to nap on the D key; Grandmother, who rocks on G, and so on.
The children rapidly progress because UPlay Piano is akin to them working with a teacher each day, said Susan Duehlmeier, the U. piano area chair.
"We're teaching these students a lifelong skill," she said. "It's rewarding to see how much they've learned and improved their skills."
After a year, tests show students have increased math and reading skills by up to 50 percent, and are performing at a grade level ahead of their peers, said program coordinator Cassie Olsen.
Olsen is part of the group, Ladies in Red, who stage benefit concerts to raise money for the program.
Michael Williams with the Salt Lake Education Foundation said it's heartening to see the students preform because arts and music have been marginalized with all the cuts in public education funding.
Piano lessons are being offered at elementary schools via the Internet:
The program • A University of Utah interactive piano lab taught by teachers trained in the project
The lessons • Animated stories teach musical concepts with games to determine if kids are learning
The method • Students receive lessons on a laptop connected to an electronic keyboard. You can help
Ticket sales will be donated to the UPlay Piano program from the Oct. 25 performance of the Tony Award-winning play "Into the Woods." Performances are at Salt Lake Community College's Grand Theatre, 575 S. State, Salt Lake City. For more information call 801-957-3322