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Tenacity is the Key to Playing Piano!

For Skokie piano teacher Rick Cinquemani, it all began at a very early age with a handshake agreement with his mother.

On Friday nights at their Milwaukee home, family members would get their musical instruments and gather around the battered old piano that his father had repaired and taught himself to play. The youngest of the household, Cinquemani -- whose Italian surname means "five hands" -- couldn't play anything. But he wanted to get at that keyboard.

Skokie piano teacher Rick Cinquemani with 10-year-old student Gabe De Sagun of Naperville. 


So when Cinquemani was 6, his mother offered him a deal: He could start lessons, but once he began, he couldn't quit until eighth-grade graduation.  He recalled, "A couple months into it (piano lessons), I'm like, 'OK, I'm done' and I remember my mom shaking her head and saying, 'Remember that day we had that big agreement?'"

As Cinquemani started to realize, piano playing touches on a number of themes, including a desire to make music, the necessary drudgery of practice, parental involvement, and the commitment to oneself and to others. This hard-won knowledge informs his work today as teacher and owner of Five Hands Piano Studio, 5200 W. Mulford, Skokie.  He bought the studio about a decade ago, after earning a degree in music theory and composition from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and a stint playing keyboard with Uncle John's Band (1991-1999), a Chicago favorite.

Serial piano teachers    

But before all of that, he drifted in and out of piano lessons, taking instruction from as many as 10 teachers. Cinquemani wasn't clicking with his instructors. He preferred improvising on a piece instead of following the sheet music and though he might block out four hours to use the piano practice room at school, the time was not used efficiently, he said. "I didn't realize," he said with a laugh, "that talking to the girl in the next room didn't count as practice."

It was particularly galling when, despite Cinquemani's talent for improvisation, people took more notice of another young musician............"A guy I knew took piano well after I had started and everyone was raving about what a bright guy he was," he said. "In less time invested, he was playing rings around me. But I was not disciplined. I didn't have the knowledge of scales and chords that this other kid had."

Finally, he took lessons from a world class concert pianist, who challenged him to document how he was using his practice time. That began a process of self-examination and scrutiny of his practice habits that has served him well.

Those "life lessons" form the foundation of his teaching philosophy and his advice to parents who are shopping around for piano lessons for their children.

Sound advice

Cinquemani offers the following tips:

     ‣      Find a teacher who uses a well-known piano curriculum, like FJH, Noona or  Michael Aaron. They should implement music theory, scales and chords as they relate to the student’s pieces.  A student must be exposed to the building blocks of music. “Learning this material is like mastering basic grammar in order to write a sentence”, he said.

     ‣      Look for a "dedicated learning environment" such as a studio. Lessons given in the home are open to numerous distractions.

     •     Make sure the teacher offers a variety of repertoire. Kids don't always relate to classical pieces, but this material is key to learning music, he said. You don't want a teacher who will teach only pop songs or whatever the student wants to learn, he added.

     •     Look for classes that include ear training (recognizing differences in pitch and rhythm) and sight reading (being able to read music at first glance).

     •     Visit the teacher's studio and talk with other parents and students. You will also have the chance to observe how well the teacher and students get along during lessons.

     •     Check if the teacher holds occasional recitals and group classes. “Watching other children play can be a good motivator for kids”, Cinquemani said.

     •     Check the teacher's credentials, education, membership in professional associations, and so on.

     •     Be committed to your child's piano lessons. Cinquemani said parents will take the unrealistic attitude of "They can take lessons as long as they feel like it." He added, "I thank my mom, as she told me I would, that she made me stay with it, even though at the time you couldn't have told me that I'd ever keep doing it."

-Rick Cinquemani has written 20th century symphonic compositions and studied with the late illustrious Dr. Jon Downey, world class concert pianist Judit Jaimes and master jazz educator Alan Swain. He has functioned as theory chair for the North Shore Music Teachers Association and is presently the chairperson for the Skokie chapter of the National Piano Guild.  On the other side of the coin, he has been in many rock bands and warmed up for acts such as Merle Saunders and Jefferson Starship. He was with Uncle John’s Band for a decade, headlining clubs such as the Vic Theatre and the Park West in Chicago. Relix magazine referred to his work as “sparkling” and hailed “When I Look” (his song) as being comparable to the best of Pure Prairie League. Presently Rick is owner of Five Hands Studio and also performs with Maryann and the Professors and “Bug Juice” - a side project made of members of Uncle John’s Band and Dark Star Orchestra.