Thriving piano studio in Highland offers its students innovative way to learn

Maria Peterson is wearing tiny puppets on her fingertips which she uses to help teach her youngest piano students. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

The traditional way to teach students how to play piano is with a half-hour private lesson. The only problem with that is that the time goes by so quickly the teacher has just enough time to show the student what they need to learn that week before sending them home to practice on their own, hoping the student will remember all of what he or she just learned.

Maria Peterson, who has taught piano since 1982 and opened The Peterson Studio in Highland in 1990, came to believe over the years that there had to be a better way. “As a teacher seeing kids for only 30 minutes, it can be frustrating; if they forget the material, you feel like you’re just re-teaching them the same material the next week or watching them practice during the lesson. And they’re not getting the best of me; I want to be able to teach these kids, and make them confident, and motivated.”


A few years ago, Peterson says, she woke up one morning with the thought that piano lessons could be more effective, perhaps, if approached in the same manner as soccer practice. “If you’re the soccer coach and you have a game every Saturday, you don’t just meet up with the kids on Saturday for the game. And you certainly don’t say to them, ‘go home, practice drills, and we’ll meet each week for the game.’ They’re not going to practice the drills in the backyard on their own; they need guidance. They need longer than half an hour once a week.”

But asking a parent to fund piano lessons more than once a week would be too burdensome, Peterson knew. The solution seemed to be to find a way to make it affordable for a parent to keep their child in the studio for a full hour for the same price they would pay for a half-hour private lesson. After a lot of research and consulting with another piano teacher who was offering piano lessons in an alternative way, Peterson changed the way she was teaching.

The majority of her students now take lessons in what she calls “the comprehensive group class.” Five students of varying ages – from second graders up through high school seniors – work at one of five keyboards (with headphones) in the same room but at their own pace, on their own level. Each receives private instruction during the one-hour class, but students have time now to practice what they just learned while Peterson and her assistant rotate amongst the students. 

“I’m still giving individual instruction to each of these children, and specific instructions on what to work on, but when I walk away, they can practice. When I rotate back to them, I’m able to check in and see how they’re doing; see what they need help with now that they’ve had an opportunity to practice a little bit.”

The success of this new method has exceeded all her expectations, Peterson says. “I keep very good records, and I can say with complete confidence that my students are progressing through their workbooks at a pace so much faster than they were before.”

After all, Peterson notes, “Children go to school every day and still need help with homework. But a lot of parents don’t know music, so they can’t help, and it can be an intimidating thing for a child to forget the material, even if they want to practice and have the time. So when they forget the material, they don’t practice and just end up waiting until the next week’s lesson.” In the group comprehensive class, she says, most students have the majority of their material learned by the time they leave after an hour-long session. “Or they’re familiar enough with it that when they go home, their recall is much greater.”

If a student proves they are working hard on their own and retaining the material, they can go back to private lessons if they wish. But most choose not to, she says. “A lot of the students want to stay in the group class. They like the idea that they get the practice time and they enjoy the camaraderie. I love how when you put a third grader in the same group as a ninth grader, there’s ‘vertical learning’ going on. So much of what kids do in school is ‘horizontal learning;’ they’re with kids their same age and they’re all learning the same thing. But this way, there’s a bit of socialization in the whole thing; the older ones enjoy seeing how the younger ones are doing, and the younger kids look at the older ones and say, ‘I can’t wait to play that piece.’”

Another change that Peterson made a few years ago in her business model was to begin teaching private lessons for three- and four-year-olds. “There are ‘Mommy & Me’ groups and a lot of classes for preschool-age children, but nobody was teaching private lessons to this age group. I found a wonderful program called Wunderkeys and melded that together with things I was already doing, and that has totally taken off.” The first two lessons for preschool-age children are free. The first lesson is free for all other ages.

The Peterson Studio has adult students, as well. “Adults tend to have really specific reasons for wanting to learn how to play or for going back to it after having taken lessons when younger,” Peterson says. She encourages adult students to learn to read notated music but does not require it, as she does of the younger students. “If adults come in, I might teach them how to play a lead sheet or teach them more about chords. If they’re singing in the key of C and need to know the chords to a particular song, I’ll teach them how to locate those chords, how to play chords, and how to break those chords up and make a nice accompaniment for themselves.”

Peterson believes that everyone is capable of learning to play the piano. “They might not become the concert pianist they are in their dreams, but they can learn to play and they will get enjoyment from it. Not everybody is gifted and some play better than others, but it doesn’t mean you can’t learn. I try to get a student to a point where if they hear a song they like and want to teach themselves to play it, they can do that. Basically, what I look to do with any age student is make it so that I’m not needed anymore.”

There are three part-time teachers employed at The Peterson Studio, as well. “I’m very, very particular about who I hire. It’s not enough for me that they know their instrument and read music and perform; it’s also very important to me that they connect with children and they actually want to be a teacher of music, as opposed to being a performer who teaches on the side. I tend to look for someone who is a music major looking for a career teaching music. I prefer teachers who are just starting out, because the process I use is new, and not done any other place that I know of. So my teachers have to be okay with exploring a new way of teaching.” Some of the part-time teachers come to her as interns from SUNY New Paltz and get graded for their efforts. “That’s great for the students, and for me as a studio.”

Peterson grew up in Port Jefferson on the North Shore of Long Island. As a junior in high school, she won a scholarship to NYU, which she attended until she developed tendonitis so severe she had to stop playing for a while and lost the scholarship. After physical therapy and some time went by, she moved up to New Paltz to finish her B.S. in music performance, music history and literature. “At SUNY New Paltz, I had two of the greatest teachers in my whole career: Orissa Jenson and her son, Harry. They changed everything about my technique and the way I play; therefore, the way I teach, also. It changed everything for me.”

In fact, she notes, her experience at SUNY New Paltz was so positive “it absolutely blew away my NYU experience in terms of what I learned and who was in the music department.”

Peterson is currently on the faculty of Dutchess Community College School of Music as well as the Arts Community, and has served as music director of First United Methodist Church in Highland. She is a member of the Music Teachers National Association, the New York State Music Teachers Association, the National Guild of Piano Teachers and a participant in the New York State School Music Association.

After moving to Highland in 1990, she began teaching out of her living room, moving several times in the years that followed but always maintaining a place to teach. At one point, a small addition to the family home was built to use as a teaching studio and Peterson co-founded The Highland Visual and Performing Arts Institute, a summer camp which ran for many years out of Highland Elementary School. Through it all, Peterson raised three children and was on the school board for many years.

The Peterson Studio is located at 2 Brinkerhoff Avenue in Highland. It is equipped with a Steinway grand piano, a Yamaha acoustic piano, five full Yamaha keyboards and seven student keyboards. The studio also has iPads and several computer software programs aimed at teaching ear training, keyboard harmony, theory and composition. The location is also Peterson’s home. When she bought the house last June, she applied for a revolving small business loan through the Town of Lloyd, and says their approval made it possible for her to renovate half the house to create a studio. “I am grateful, because without that I would not have been able to be in such a great location and have my business grow.”

When she first began teaching in Highland in 1990, Peterson started with a half-dozen or so students. She currently has 110. “I’m very proud of how I’ve evolved and am always trying to grow,” she says. “In September, it will be 29 years I’ve been teaching in Highland, and I can tell you, I have not grown tired of it. I actually love it more now than I ever did and I feel like I’m embarking on the next chapter with this group class and hiring more teachers. The business feels like I keep starting over, which makes it feel as if it’s all still new. It’s great. I have the most wonderful students and families; you could not ask for better people. They make it a joy for me. I get up every day and love what I do.”

For more information, call (845) or visit