FREDERICKSBURG, Va. — It took Eric Armstead a few weeks to figure out what was preventing one of his piano students from progressing.
“She was a bright student, but she was struggling with technique,” Armstead said.
Armstead, who teaches voice and piano lessons out of his home-based music studio in Ladysmith, knew his student was capable of more. He tried different approaches and worked to establish a connection with her so that she would feel comfortable sharing what was holding her back.
Finally, the girl revealed the problem. She didn’t have a piano at home.
She had been practicing every week on the large picture of a keyboard that she found in her music theory book.
Armstead couldn’t believe it.
“How can someone come to learn how to do a thing and not actually have that thing?” he wondered.
That night, he took to Facebook.
“If you have a keyboard that you bought but didn’t use, and it became a toy and then a piece of furniture—I need that keyboard. I’ll even buy it from you,” he wrote to all his friends.
The response, Armstead said, was “overwhelming.”
“People were leaving brand-new keyboards with the receipt at our back door,” his wife, Katrina, said.
That’s how “Keyboards for Kids” got started. The couple have since been able to donate keyboards to five of Armstead’s private students and they want to keep going.
People have donated money to the initiative and Armstead is planning to host a concert at 6 p.m. Aug. 12 at the Ladysmith Village clubhouse to raise funds for buying new instruments and solicit donations of old instruments.
“If you have an old [keyboard] lying around, there is someone who would take it in and love it,” Armstead said.
“If I could put a keyboard in every kids’ hand, that would be wonderful,” he added. “Kids feel proud when they’re using a good instrument. It does something for their confidence.”
He described how one of his students had been practicing on an ancient Casio keyboard that only worked if it was jiggled in a particular way. Once Armstead donated a keyboard to the boy, he became so confident in his skill that he started his own Youtube channel.
“And he’s a phenomenal musician,” Armstead said.
Armstead, who grew up in Fredericksburg and attended city public schools, started teaching voice and piano lessons out of his home in Caroline a year ago.
Previously, he taught private lessons in Fredericksburg, but he lived in Richmond and the commute, along with juggling a full-time job as a music pastor, got to be too strenuous.
But when he and his wife moved to Ladysmith Village three years ago, they finished the basement in their new house so that it could be used as a music studio, just in case Armstead “got the itch” to teach again.
And it wasn’t long before he did. Some family members wanted him to teach their kids and he agreed.
Those family members told friends, who started bringing their kids for lessons. Word spread and now Armstead teaches 60 students, from 6-year-olds to adults.
“Word of mouth has grown us and that’s been a benefit,” he said.
He said the majority of his client base used to drive from Caroline to Richmond or Fredericksburg to take their kids to music lessons and are relieved to have something closer to home.
Armstead’s students put on recitals for the community twice a year, in the fall and spring.
“Let’s see, at this last recital we had Ave Maria sung, we had Whitney Houston sung and we had Barbara Streisand sung,” Armstead said, chuckling at the recollection of an 11-year-old singing “The Way We Were,” Streisand’s signature song from 1973.
Armstead said he devotes some time each lesson just to listening to different kinds of music with his students.
“We don’t zero in on any particular style,” he said. “We’ll do everything from 19th century arias to Disney. Kids don’t know what they like. You never know, they might fall in love with Ella Fitzgerald—or Barbara Streisand.”
Next year, he plans to start taking his students in groups to see performances at the University of Mary Washington, Riverside Center or even farther afield to the Kennedy Center.
“A big part of musical growth is to see other people perform professionally,” Armstead said.
Armstead grew up in a musical family, studied music at Virginia Commonwealth University and now works as a musician.
“For me, music is everything,” he said.
“I remember every single music teacher I ever had,” he said. “And while I might not remember the things they gave me [such as awards and trophies], I use every day the things they put in me—love for music and curiosity about music and art.”
He said his own students tell him every week how learning about rhythm has helped them in math class or how performing at a recital gave them confidence to stand up and give a book report to their class.
“I tell parents, the point is not for your child to become the next Taylor Swift or Stevie Wonder,” Armstead said. “The point is for them to have love and respect for music, however it is used.”
“Music is a way to uplift,” he added.