Piano Woman: Local Octogenarian Teaches Music and Life Lessons
Writer / Rebecca Wood • Photographer / JJ Kaplan
For over a half century, Jeanette Vawter has taught music out of her home. Thousands of students have tapped her piano keys and strummed her stringed instruments. Preschoolers have wiggled to Vawter’s beats while doting parents share in the joy.
They’ve come to learn music fundamentals from this seasoned teacher, but they’ve stayed because what Vawter teaches transcends what can be gleaned from the pages of a piano book.
At 85 years old, Vawter can best be described as spry. She maintains a schedule that those decades her junior would consider full. Forty students, ranging in age from preschool to adult, filter into her living room each week for music lessons. This stream began over 55 years ago.
From her home, which hugs the line between Carmel and Zionsville, Vawter has taught everything from preschool music classes to a variety of instrumental and voice lessons.
When not at home teaching music, Vawter could be found leading children in the church choir. For over 60 years, she served as a children’s choir director at a variety of churches. She just relinquished this role, but she admits an interest in returning to that position if she found the right fit.
As a child, Vawter discovered music. A Hawaiian guitar was her first musical instrument. At the age of 16, she studied voice. Through the years, she’s added other musical instruments to her repertoire including the piano, dulcimer and ukulele, all she continues to play today with skill and precision.
To Vawter, teaching music is a joy. She beams when describing her students, too many to count.
“I love children, even when they are ornery,” she laughs. “I love to see them accomplish something and love music. There are all kinds of kids with all kinds of abilities. I’ve learned that I can always help them.”
Nicole Seiler, mother to 7-year-old piano student Mia Seiler, appreciates Vawter’s kind, calm presence with her students.
“She always encourages the children and is extremely positive,” says Seiler. “I get such a good feeling whenever I go there and whenever I talk to her. It’s a special experience that is hard to explain. I guess it just feels like my daughter is getting piano lessons from my grandmother.”
Mia likes that her teacher is patient. “Even when I hit a wrong note, she doesn’t get mad or frustrated,” she says.
Parents call the recitals a highlight of their experience with Vawter. Students showcase their progress and talents for an audience of loved ones. Vawter frequently performs duets with her students. She cites the “Spanish Tornado” duet as a crowd pleaser.
Post performance, Vawter serves guests her special lime sherbet-Sprite punch coupled with a plateful of cookies. The crowd mingles and celebrates special performances and the teacher who has sharpened the skills.
What marvels parents and students alike is that Vawter seems to defy any stereotype on age and a body’s need to adjust to a slower pace.
Even outside her music lessons, Vawter remains active. Within the last few years, she completed a Christian counseling certification. She regularly attends two church services a weekend and a weekly Bible study.
She is a busy mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. Her daughter also serves as a piano teacher.
When asked about her health, Vawter is happy to report her doctor regularly gives her an A+ on her medical exams. As a result, Vawter voices no plans to slow down her schedule in the near future.
She says the secret to longevity is to love what you are doing.
With a smile, Vawter adds, “I have to love it, or I wouldn’t do it at this age!”