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By Sheri Twoti


"Drink a lot of water".

That was Tina's advice in July 2018 when we sat down in her lakefront Ypsilanti condominium that she shares with her husband and three children. "It's 100 degrees outside. You have to hydrate".

And, as we talked, it was quickly evident that pragmatism was at the core of her  young company.

* * * 


Two Grinnell Brothers console pianos meet you at the door. "I'm a Detroit girl, and I'm a work horse. Grinnells are both." How important was it to have Grinnells in particular? "Very", she says, laughing. "There are unnatural loyalties to certain items. Why do people want Shinola watches when a Timex will do? Because Shinola stands for something--Detroit made, high quality."

This pursuit of excellence Ms. Van Ochten strives for as a piano instructor and musician is constant. "Every day is an opportunity to create a leader and be a leader", she says while making a latte (grinding the beans and foaming the foam). "Every student has the potential to create change in this world. Every day I'm alive I can change the world too. Music can help us do that. And age doesn't matter. Anyone can play the piano, and I encourage older adults to claim that dream of learning how to play. It will improve your life".

Science backs her up. According to the Journal of Neuroscience "older adults with a lifetime of music training do not exhibit neural timing delays" (neural timing delays cause older adults to have difficulties understanding speech). Scientists investigated adults who had studied music for only a few years, and research suggests that playing an instrument even for a few years sets the stage for enormous benefits to the brain when returning to the instrument, even if adults hadn't played in decades.


None of this surprises her. "When I was diagnosed with breast cancer [in 2015], it was assumed that music was going to be an integral part of the healing process". Her doctors, oncologist and breast surgeon Dr. Beth Kimball, and plastic surgeon Dr. Paul Izenberg, both of St. Joseph-Mercy in Ann Arbor, understood and honored her request for music in the operating room during her surgeries. "I had a playlist of relaxing, encouraging music from a variety of genres. The doctors seemed to enjoy it too." 

The Birth of The Piano

While planning her treatment, she asked everyone she knew for song recommendations. She noticed something right away. "People of a certain age used to exchange mix tapes and then CDs. Asking them for song recommendations was no problem. But when I asked my younger students, and even my children, they were at a loss. 'Recommend a song? To make you feel good? What are you talking about'? Do kids sit around and ponder the meaning of life while listening to Kendrick Lamar or Pink? I hope so. For sure, though, it was important to incorporate appreciation of music in my teaching, so I make a big deal out of the question, 'What are you listening to right now?'".

A second incident made her realize just how large the educational gulf in piano instruction actually was. "A few years ago, I was contracted by a private music academy to teach piano. It was a great opportunity because I was able to teach many students, and I was able to create lessons that answered the questions most students have. A few weeks in, a student in a room next to mine ran out of it so excited. You could tell that the piano was definitely his instrument. 

"But then he asked his teacher, 'How does sound come out of the piano and make it to my ears?' The teacher knew the strings vibrate, but she couldn't tell the child that the strings vibrate which causes the air around it to vibrate at the same frequency in a longitudinal wave form, which makes contact with the ear drum, which vibrates and sends a message via three bones and nerve to the brain. 

"I thought all piano teachers knew that. I mean, if you play an instrument you should know how sound travels, right? All of my students know that, and have used that knowledge to become paid performers.It's not enough to be able to run scales; you also have to apply that knowledge on stage. How do you use that knowledge to create art and to give your audience what they want? That's the question each lesson should always answer. That was my ah ha moment. That was the day The Piano Instructor was born".

Everyone can learn and we can prove it.

In May 2018, she took her specialized curriculum approach to a Shark Tank like competition at Washtenaw Community College called Pitch@WCC.  She didn't win. "And I'm glad I didn't", she said. "After seeing how other folks in the area created their companies and how they were structured, I learned exactly how I wanted to create a positive impact in Ypsilanti that was unique to me. The heart of my company is very well established--everyone can learn and we can prove it--but I didn't have a focus that could be explained easily".

Ms. Van Ochten reworked her company to include teacher training, and is studying to earn certification so that she can offer her training to K-12 teachers for licensing credit. She is writing a series of children's books--The Teresa P. Iqbal series--that teaches the science concepts behind the music, available in English, Spanish, and Arabic.

A Minute With the Piano Instructor--a 60 second show--resumes in August 2018 with tips and advice on being a pianist. "We don't need more Mitsuko Uchidas. There can be only one of her. Each person's individual voice can be found through this instrument. What do you want to say with this instrument? I'm relentless with asking that question. Over and over, what do you want to say?

"On camera, I wear no make-up. When I do high fashion, then it's fun crazy make-up, but in every day business, I'm of the same mindset as [CNN's chief international correspondent] Christiane Amanpour--I'm not trying to worry about the color of my lipstick when I need to explain harmonic resonance. And that's my style. What's yours, is the question for each student". 

After our espresso and croissant, Ms. Van Ochten indicates she has a student arriving shortly. Though we chatted for some time, it felt quick. "My mom is from the south, and hospitality is very important. The time flies when I give lessons or when I'm doing a seminar because it is so much fun for all of us, and it's practical--everything I teach, you can use that day. I learned how to do all that from my mother--actually, I learn from her every day". The mark of a teacher--always learning.


All photographs are untouched and unaltered except for cropping, with Mrs. Van Ochten wearing no make-up. Hair by DIY Hair, Ypsi. Hat by Jacklyn Smith Collection. All photographs were taken by husband Mitch Van Ochten, Jr., with a Pentax K-r using various vintage lenses. (WCC pic taken with a LG Android.)