Final lesson: Piano teacher ends 65 years of sharing her love of music in Columbus

After 65 years, this piano teacher is retiring. Step into her last lesson.

Ila Berenson, 83, has taught piano for 65 years. She and one of her students talk about what her retirement means during Berenson's last lesson in her home.
Up Next
Ila Berenson, 83, has taught piano for 65 years. She and one of her students talk about what her retirement means during Berenson's last lesson in her home.

As she waited in her midtown home for the students to arrive at her final lesson in Columbus, Ila Berenson talked about the end of her 65-year piano teaching career.

“It’s a very strange thing — and I may cry, because I cry easily — but I’ve been teaching so long, and it’s what I’ve always wanted to do my entire life,” she said. “And, suddenly, it’s just going to sort of slide to an end.”

Berenson, 83, and her husband Morton, a retired internal medicine doctor, are moving to Atlanta so they can live closer to family.

Then, lifting her spirit, she added, “Happy that I’ve been able to do what I wanted to do all of these years and loved doing what I wanted to do.”

Berenson grew up in Columbus and started taking piano lessons in third grade from Alma McGee, who in 1978 created an endowment to fund a piano pedagogy program designed to train piano teachers in the Schwob School of Music at Columbus State University.

By the time she was attending Columbus High School (Class of 1954), Berenson progressed to the point where McGee asked her to tutor some of the children who needed extra help.

“I think I was born to teach piano,” she said. “… I always loved the social aspect of it, rather than the concert aspect, where you would sit for hours and practice. I loved to practice but not that much.”

McGee took Berenson to piano teacher workshops.

“The more I went,” she said, “… the more I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”

Berenson earned a bachelor’s degree in music from CSU. She has been a member of the Georgia Music Teachers Association for 63 years. She also has played piano in the Columbus Community Orchestra for 20 years.

When she started teaching piano, Columbus had approximately two dozen piano teachers, Berenson said, and has roughly the same number now. But the number of students has dwindled. She has had as many as 30 students during one week but now has five.

“American students have gotten involved in so many different activities, and I think American parents want to introduce them to a potpourri of everything,” she said. “Rather than concentrating on one thing, they concentrate on many things, and it’s never as good as concentrating on one thing. So we just don’t get the hours of piano practice.”

Still, among the hundreds of kids she has taught, some of their parents are former students.

“I’m just always running into people that I taught when they were children,” she said.

And some of her students have become professional musicians or piano teachers.

“It’s been a wonderful thing to have been involved in,” she said.

Teaching piano, she said, is “a chance to impart to children something so special in a form that they can enjoy later on in life or give back to with appreciation of the symphony or just the joy of being able to play themselves.”

Learning piano, she said, gives her students “a sense of accomplishment, a chance to relax, a chance to work their brain.”

Playing piano, she said, is a way to “relieve your soul, … just the relaxation and the joy of it.”

Her teaching philosophy, Berenson said, primarily is about sharing her love of music with children. Technique is secondary. She wants her students to remember “how much fun music is. … We try to keep it light.”

Katie Fernandez, a senior at Columbus High School, can vouch for that after 12 years of taking lessons from Berenson.

“It’s very personable and friendly,” Katie, 17, said of Berenson’s teaching style. “It doesn’t ever feel like a dread to come here. It’s always really fun. We have a good time.”

But the lessons also have been serious at times. Berenson has taught her about responsibility, Katie said.

“When I don’t practice,” Katie said, “she makes sure that I know that she knows.”

Katie laughed as she recalled Berenson often reminding her to “fix your posture” and “make your back straight” and “curve your fingers.”

Through learning music theory on a whiteboard or fine-tuning her technique at the keyboard, Katie has connected with Berenson and formed a strong bond.

“She’s super-friendly and nice, but she’s still strict at the same time, which I like,” Katie said, “because, if she wasn’t strict in holding me accountable, then I wouldn’t be a good musician.”

As she prepared for her final lesson with Berenson, Katie said, “It’s kind of bittersweet. I’m kind of sad, but the time is here. I feel like I’ve grown a lot as a person and a musician, and she’s just overall helped me so much throughout the years, and I’m thankful for her.”

Katie plans to attend Kennesaw State University and major in marketing to become a realtor or an interior designer. Regardless, she hopes to have a piano in her future home.

Asked whether she will take piano lessons from someone else, Katie said, “I don’t think so. … No one can replace her.”

Ledger-Enquirer staff writer Mark Rice covers education and other issues related to youth. He also writes feature stories about any compelling topic. He has been reporting in Columbus and the Chattahoochee Valley for more than a quarter-century. He welcomes your local news tips and questions.