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Back to school later in life: is it for you?

Why would you want to go back to school at your age and put that kind of pressure on yourself?" That was the kind of response I knew was possible when I made the decision to pursue a higher degree after decades away from academia. Thankfully, when I shared my dream to earn a master's degree with friends and family, I received mostly positive feedback. True, taking tests and writing long papers was not exactly my definition of fun, but something that outweighed any apprehension was compelling me to move forward. After teaching piano at home for over twenty years and raising our three children, a growing number of my students were moving into advanced repertoire, and I desired greater understanding to guide them at this level. Also, I envisioned that being part of a larger musical community at a university would open doors for performance and teaching jobs. The ultimate goal, I mused, would be teaching at the college level, along with my private studio at home. Our youngest was about to finish high school, and it was clear that if graduate school was to become a reality, now was the moment.

Which school? Which degree?

Choosing a school was an easy decision for me, since living in metro Atlanta placed me near Georgia State University (GSU). The reality, however, is that many don't have the advantage of living in close proximity to a college or university. Young students can often go anywhere for college, but when you have a family and roots in a community moving may not be an option. At GSU, I met a graduate student exactly my age who had moved from Virginia and worked through these challenges. In the end, she felt she had made the right decision. Obviously, it would depend upon the personal circumstances of each individual. 

In the 1970s I earned an undergraduate degree in music education (piano emphasis) and taught in a classroom setting for several years. When our first child was born, my husband and I decided that I would leave the school job and try to grow my private studio. As time passed, I began to see it was the one-to-one instruction that I loved. The piano masters degree programs that GSU offered were in performance and pedagogy—I chose pedagogy since my primary focus was teaching.

Audition preparation

In preparation I researched the audition requirements online, learning that I would need to prepare one piece from each of the major periods. I believed it was important for me to learn new repertoire for this audition. In the spring of 2005, I approached one of the master teachers in our local association, Jeannine Morrison, and asked her if she would help me prepare my audition. She graciously agreed and helped me select works by Bach, Haydn, Mendelssohn, and Ravel. Of course, everything had to be memorized, and we also worked on scales, arpeggios, and sight-reading. 

Thirty years ago, memorizing music was not a problem, and I never had major memory slips. Now, however, I wasn't too sure. Almost any playing I had done was with the score. "Can I still play by memory?" I wondered, after a long period of not exercising this skill. The answer was obvious: "Well, you won't know if you don't try. You have nothing to lose, but everything to gain." 

The time spent with Jeannine proved to be very productive. She taught me many different ways to practice scales, helped improve my arpeggio technique, and gave me tips on memorization, among countless other things. She also invited me to play in a student recital and later as part of a teaching presentation. Another teacher friend allowed me to play through my entire audition program for a small audience at her home. These performance opportunities were invaluable.

Kristi Helfen works with Dr. Geoffrey Haydon in the GSU piano lab.

Audition day

I intended to begin studies in the fall, so I opted for an audition day in mid-March, the latest date available in the spring. Starting in the fall turned out to be a good decision, since that is when the vast majority of students begin. Opting to start in January, when others have been interacting for a full semester, could lead one to feel insecure or left out. 

My husband Paul dropped me off at the GSU School of Music early that morning. In the car I remember trying to let it sink in that the day had fi nally arrived. Paul couldn't stay, but I knew he totally supported my endeavor. (None of this would have been possible without the encouragement of family and close friends.) The day began with a general meeting for all auditionees. I found a seat, and the young woman next to me, I later learned, was the only other graduate piano pedagogy major auditioning that semester! Margaret Maurice and I introduced ourselves to one another, and then I looked around and noticed quite a few folks in their forties and older. Pleasantly surprised, I commented to Margaret, "It's great to see so many students around my age." She respectfully replied, "Kristi, I think those are the parents." I guess it was just wishful thinking! 

Three members of the GSU piano faculty were present at the audition. Dr. Geoffrey Haydon, Keyboard Studies Coordinator, allowed me to choose my first piece. I began with Haydn, and the others followed. Then came scales, arpeggios, and sightreading. At the end, I was asked if I had a preference for my private instructor. This caught me by surprise, so I replied that I would be fine with whomever they chose. When the audition was over, I concluded that I should have practiced more on inverted positions of arpeggios and done more sight-reading preparation. Although I believe my notes and rhythms were fairly accurate, I needed improvement on tempo changes and dynamics. The good news: I survived the audition!

Kristi Helfen performs her degree recital.

The acceptance letter

What seemed an eternity (in reality only about six weeks) passed. Finally a letter from GSU appeared in the mailbox. To my amazement, not only was I accepted, but I was also offered a graduate assistantship teaching group piano classes. This assistantship would cover my tuition and provide a $500 monthly stipend. 

What fabulous news! However, a sobering decision weighed on me heavily and needed to be made soon. At the time I received the acceptance letter, my private studio had grown to thirty-fi ve students. The assistantship required that I carry at least twelve hours each semester. How would I handle a full load of classes, get in all the necessary practice, fulfill the demands of the assistantship, and teach thirty-five students at home? 

It became increasingly clear that something had to go, or I would succeed at nothing. Keeping some students and not others didn't seem right for me. So, in early June I sent all of my families a letter explaining that I would not be teaching private lessons in the upcoming year. Most of them transferred over to other teachers, but some quit altogether, and that was the hardest part. I did lose a lot of income, but having tuition covered and getting a monthly stipend helped a great deal. I also applied for and received a grant from Steinway Piano Galleries.

Placement exams

Graduate placement exams in music history, theory, and aural skills were given the week before classes started. That summer my old college books received a good dusting off, along with a set of records and companion scores. I played a lot of "Name that Tune" with public radio and found free online resources to help prepare specifi cally for these exams. Creating flashcards allowed me to drill on long-forgotten concepts, such as Neapolitan and Italian sixths. 

On test day, by far the most diffi cult section for me was dictation. The professor played several excerpts, each of which seemed to be about eight measures long with three or four parts sounding simultaneously. (For pianists this is tough enough, but for vocalists and other instrumentalists it must have seemed almost impossible.) Even though he played each example three times, I was nowhere close to being able to take it all down. Looking back, I realized I should have followed the bass line first, then added on above it. 

When the entire test was over, I knew I had answered more right than wrong, but was it enough to pass? If so, I would be exempted from timeconsuming review classes. Much to my surprise and delight, the next day I learned that I was the only graduate student that semester to pass all of the sections. Not bad for a fifty-one-year-old!

Kristi Helfen in a lesson with Dr. Sergio Gallo.

School begins

The piano department assigned me to a new professor coming to GSU that fall, Dr. Sergio Gallo. Reading his accomplishments and training (Conservatoire Européen de Musique in Paris, Franz Liszt Academy of Budapest, among others) and hearing him play that fi rst week of classes, I was excited to begin private study but fighting feelings of inferiority. During our fi rst lesson those feelings began to lift as he seemed genuinely pleased to have this non-traditional student and eager to share his love of music. 

The two years of lessons with Dr. Gallo alone would have been enough to make all the planning and preparation worthwhile. In addition to everything I learned from him to help me become a better musician and teacher, my confidence level grew each semester. I also gained a life-long mentor and friend. Our last lesson was four years ago, but we still communicate often. He helps me think through teaching issues, such as which edition to use or the best way to execute a tricky passage.

Classes and computers

The advent of computers in the 80s brought a huge change to the way academic institutions operate. Would professors expect me to do lots of work online? Would I be able to keep up with all the technology? Graduate students were advised to take Intro to Grad Studies their first semester. Although this class had lengthy assignments, it proved to be extremely valuable in learning to use resources on the web, along with materials in the library, and it prepared us to do research for upcoming classes. In another course, Computer Applications in Music, we learned how to develop our own websites and use music composition software. I admit I was a little lost at times, but the professor was very patient, realizing that I was no spring chicken. What I learned in these classes continues to be benefi cial today, not only in the music studio but in everyday life, as well.

"You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream."

Piano literature: A favorite class

This course, taught by Dr. Haydon, was enlightening, fun, and practical, exposing me to vast amounts of repertoire from the Renaissance through the twentieth century, as well as essential information about the instrument itself. I purchased an iPod to study for the listening tests, and it has served me (and my students) well ever since. We studied scores on the overhead projector while listening to lectures on musical form and each composer's unique style. Best of all, I came to better understand levels of repertoire to make more appropriate student assignments. 

Finishing up

So much could be said about other classes, such as music history, theory, harpsichord, and accompanying, that were also taught by outstanding professors. Suffice it to say that everything worked together to impart a fresh perspective on teaching and performing and a renewed inspiration to become a better musician.

All that I had learned culminated in the final semester. I presented a final pedagogy project on teaching piano to retirement-age adults. Next came oral exams, and, to prepare, I was given piano and theory related questions to study, making exam day less high-pressured than it might have been otherwise. 

I chose a recital date near the end of the semester since graduate students are given a range of freedom to schedule some of these final events. The recital was the climax and also the biggest challenge of the masters program. With the project and oral exams fi nished, I could put almost my entire focus here. Pedagogy majors have the option of doing an all-solo program or a combination of chamber and solo. The idea of combining the two seemed appealing, and how often would the opportunity avail itself to perform a piano quartet or a two-piano duo? Dr. Gallo and I decided on a program of solo works by Bach, Beethoven, Liszt, and Gottschalk, and chamber pieces by Mozart and Debussy. At the recital, when the fi nal chord was played and the audience applauded, my heart was fi lled with gratitude for the entire amazing experience at GSU. Dreams of teaching college were realized about two years after graduation when my friend and fellow grad student, Julie Kang Harvey, recommended me for a position at Oxford College of Emory University. And the private studio that I closed down in 2006 has grown back to full capacity. 

Is the idea of going back to school for a higher degree in the realm of possibility for you? I totally concur with author C. S. Lewis who once said, "You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream."

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