“My family and I are trying our best to be kind to the world, and I love nature so much, from the tiniest leaf to the tallest tree…well, you get the point,” starts one letter to Ring House resident Alan Eisenberg from seventh-grade pen pal Spencer. They exchange letters regularly thanks to the PianoPals project at Ring House and Landow House which matches elementary, middle and high school students who have a passion for music to pen pals in the residences.
The program started in 2018 as part of the West Campus Music Project with the support of the Jerome A. Kaplan and Deena L. Kaplan Family Foundation and under the leadership of CESLC Music Project pianist, Jiyoung Oh. “I wanted to bridge the work I do as a musician and create new learning experiences for my young piano students before their end of semester recitals. I thought it would be wonderful to pair the recital with a pen pal program, so the students and residents get to know each other through the exchange of letters and meet in person at the performance,” she said.
The students and residents exchange letters during a semester which culminates with a piano recital. “The students get to experience the joy and power of connecting to others through more than music,” said Oh. “They work hard, practicing their pieces and preparing to play for an audience. It’s a very personal experience when they do it with the purpose of connecting with the resident with whom they have built a relationship.”
The impact of these relationships across generations is lasting. Bruce Green, z”l, lived in Landow House and exchanged several letters with his pen pal Greta, a middle school piano student. In response to one of her letters where she said that in the future she would like to colonize Mars, he wrote back to her all the details about Mars that he learned from a documentary and even gave her a mathematical formula to calculate travel time to Mars. One of Greta’s letters to Green was shared by his sister just days before he passed away.
Greta was saddened by Green’s passing, but the connection between them continues to live on. “It was a powerful reminder that connecting with people, whether they meet in person or not, is one of the most important experiences we can have in our lives,” said Oh.
“I think that piano pals is good for the residents because it gives them an opportunity to connect with another generation and share their life experiences with us,” said a student participant who is a freshman at Washington Lee High School. “It has been really cool getting to know my piano pal in letters and then meeting them in real life.”
According to Eisenberg, he decided to participate in the pen pal program because he too wanted to share knowledge and experience that would be useful to the students and because he has a strong appreciation for music. This intergenerational program lets him enjoy both. “I love music, and the recital by the students makes the pen pal connection more real,” he said.
“Spencer is very impressive,” said Eisenberg. “He didn’t seem like a typical 12-year-old boy to me when I met him and his family. He picks up as much information as he can. He is interested in science, and he has a great sense of humor. I look forward to our exchange of letters at least once a month and of course, the recital brings everything together.”