May 1, 2024

Teaching Piano to Senior Citizens Is an Inspiration for Young Volunteer

NEVER TOO LATE: Residents of Maplewood at Princeton have been taking piano lessons from 15-year-old high school sophomore Pranayaa Jeyaraman, who was among those honored last week for their volunteer work.

By Anne Levin

Pranayaa Jeyaraman has been taking piano lessons since she was in first grade. Since February, the Woodbridge Academy Magnet School sophomore has been spending some of her time at the keyboard with enthusiastic students who happen to be decades her senior.

They are residents of the senior living community Maplewood at Princeton, and they study with the Monroe Township resident on Saturday afternoons. Results have been so positive that Pranayaa was among those honored last Saturday, April 27, at an appreciation luncheon, where she was given a certificate and a special key chain hand-made by Maplewood residents.

“I wanted to apply what I’ve learned and help others at the same time,” she said this week. “A lot of people in the senior center are lonely, I think, and this is a way to help. It’s been good for me, too.”

Wanda Garrin, Maplewood’s lifestyle director, said volunteers at the senior center usually do things like office work, or play games with the residents.

“It’s so special to have someone that actually knows how to play the piano and is willing to share that love of music with residents,” she said. “Pranayaa is so young but so mature. And she’s so patient with our residents. She has the most beautiful smile. For her to sit there and let them make their mistakes and let them learn, it’s just beautiful. I sit in my office and hear them playing, and my heart is full. I get goosebumps.”

Among Pranayaa’s students is 93-year-old Juanita Nevola, who always wanted to learn to play the piano. “When I was a little girl, we had a piano,” she said in a press release from Maplewood at Princeton. “But only my brother got lessons. I fiddled with the keys and I taught myself ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb.’ My children are so happy I’m taking lessons that they got me a keyboard of my very own, so I can practice in between lessons.”

Also quoted is resident Cynthia Hendrickson. “I’m really enjoying learning piano with Pranayaa,” she said. “I appreciate how patient she is with me. When I wanted to sign up for lessons, it was because I wanted to do something to improve my cognition.”

Another one of Pranayaa’s students is 90-something Angela Mattson. “It has always been my dream, since I was a young girl, to play the piano,” she said. “But I was one of 14 children, so there wasn’t enough money for lessons. Now that this opportunity has been given to me, I say, ‘Why not?’ I need to try.”

While Pranayaa does encounter the occasional memory lapse among her students, it doesn’t faze her. “I think two of the people I worked with weren’t in the memory care unit, but they were starting to lose their memory. I started to realize that after a few classes, they’d ask me for my name again. But always in the beginning of the lesson, I try to repeat what we’ve done before. So, you build upon that. It’s not one new thing every week.”

While Pranayaa had six students at one point, she currently works with four. Most of them have no prior experience at the keyboard. But they have been exposed to music in some form.

“One student, Andrew, said his son used to play piano, so he had a piano in his house. With him, I could start a little more advanced,” she said. “Another student’s daughter plays piano and bought her a book with some old songs like ‘If You Knew Susie,’ which she likes. If you know a song, it’s a lot easier to stay interested.”

In the future, Pranayaa hopes to continue with music while going into the health care field. “These opportunities to connect with these people I don’t know, and get to know them, have been an all-around nice, holistic experience,” she said. “They have shown me that it’s never too late to learn.”