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Sunday, April 28, 2013
When I visited the Gainsboro Branch Library earlier this year for a neighborhood meeting, I felt as if I had wandered into someone's living room. A young couple read a book together in the window seat, children played games on the floor, and several teenagers and adults rattled away at computer keyboards.
The library serves as Gainsboro's living room, and a neighborhood leader suggested I return on a Thursday afternoon to fully appreciate the role it plays in the community.
I took her advice and discovered a young girl in the community room pecking out a halting version of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" on a keyboard. She paused, then tried again as the familiar tune took shape.
"I think I got this thing down," she said as she rolled into a third verse with a confidence accentuated by vigorous head bobbing.
Two other youngsters scrubbed away at guitars. A woman with wavy brown hair scurried to close the door. It was, after all, a library.
Elizabeth Raines has been teaching music for three years at city branch libraries to anyone who shows up. Remarkably, her lessons are free of charge.
"I would just like to see the world changed for the better," she told me. "I think music makes people better people."
I have a special affection for music teachers. My mother has been giving piano lessons since I was young, and I was one of her students. I'm in desperate need of more practice, but I still play.
Like me, Raines, who grew up in Christiansburg, inherited a love of music from her mom, who is still teaching piano at age 91. The daughter channeled her talents into her high school band, where she played the trumpet and French horn.
Raines also entered her mother's profession as a teacher, a job that brought her to the Roanoke Valley. A woman of deep religious faith, she found it difficult to keep her Christian enthusiasm to herself, problematic since she worked at a public elementary school.
She found herself looking for another occupation. Music was a natural choice. She took business classes sponsored by the chamber of commerce, but her goal to open a music studio fell through when she lost the space where she had planned to give lessons.
That's when she decided to teach music for free. She gave lessons at her church and visited public housing locations with a sign offering to teach piano and guitar at no charge. One day she visited a library and discovered there was no fee to use its community room. Three years later, she's a regular at the Gainsboro, Jackson Park and Melrose branches.
Gary Rushbrooke, manager of the Melrose library, assumed she was laying the groundwork to eventually open a business elsewhere, but she kept coming back.
"I've been really surprised," he said. "I was amazed at how much time she puts into it."
At first, there was a formal sign-up sheet for those interested in lessons, but Raines is not a fan of formalities like schedules.
"I just decided if they just walk in, maybe they'll get a little bit out of it, and maybe they'll come back," she said.
Her students include adults and children, youngsters with autism, and immigrants from Haiti and Burundi, who are especially fond of the drumbeat function on the electric keyboard. Some wander in out of curiosity. Others arrive the same time each week. Some arrive in groups for a raucous ensemble. Others she works with individually.
Raines has developed her own teaching style, which incorporates keyboards and guitars as well as time for drawing, singing and Bible stories, a mix that holds the attention of even the youngest tots.
Pamela Mack-Brown has been bringing her daughter, 9-year-old Mackenzie Brown, to lessons for most of the three years Raines has been at the Gainsboro library.
"She looks forward to every Thursday," Mack-Brown said. "Financially, I don't know if we'd have been able to afford private lessons."
Raines knows many of her students would go without if not for her. She's managed to continue teaching for free even when she and her husband experienced financial hardships in the past. Now the store where her husband works is being sold, and more uncertainty lies ahead. But she is hoping and praying that she can fill Roanoke's libraries with joyful noise for many years to come.
"I want as many students as possible to love music the way I do," she said.
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