Pianist opens music studio in downtown Washougal

Music Con Brio offers piano lessons, group classes for all ages

Some of Valerie Ross’ earliest childhood memories involve her mother teaching piano lessons to eager youngsters from their home in northern California. Gazing upon the teacher and student from across the room, she became mesmerized by the sounds they were making. She finally convinced her mother to teach her how to play when she was about 4 years old.

For the next two-plus decades, Ross worked diligently to become the best piano player she could be, and found success as a performer in a variety of professional settings. But when she moved back home to California several years ago, she decided that she wanted to follow the example of her mother and focus on teaching.

“I get to work with people of all ages, which is so fun. It brings out all different sides of my personality,” she said. “I get to be really playful with the 4-year-olds, and my teenagers, we talk about life a little bit, and that’s really great. And then with my adults, I get to help them do something they’ve always wanted to do. I have kids that I’ve been working with for eight, 10 years now, and it is so rare to have a non-parent adult be a consistent presence in a child’s life, so it’s such an honor to be able to be that person — someone who is there, showing up, giving them one-on-one attention every week and celebrating their successes.”

Ross opened a studio for her business, Music Con Brio, earlier this month at 1887 Main St., Washougal, the former home of Chameleon Vintage and Vinyl.

The former professional musician offers piano lessons and group classes to people of all ages, utilizing a curriculum called Piano Safari that includes “healthy piano technique, game-based instruction in music theory and note reading, exposure to traditional classic repertoire, improvisation and beginning composition, playing by ear, fun practice techniques, performance etiquette, musicality, (and an) option to participate in the Royal Conservatory’s examination program,” according to Music Con Brio’s website.

“I’m a really big believer in learning through play,” Ross said. “Research shows that kids learn best through hands-on and exploring. I have an entire file cabinet with piano games for every topic imaginable. Everything (that I do) is just hands-on and super engaging. We’re not just like, ‘This is a middle ‘C,’ now play middle ‘C,’ because nobody wants to do that.

“It just works. I started dabbling with it a while ago. Some of my 12-year-old students who (were here because their) mom was making them take piano, I just couldn’t get them to learn anything, and then one day, I was like, ‘OK, we’re going to play a game.’ And they just perked up and learned the notes right away. I was like, ‘Wow.’ It just makes such a big difference.”

Ross is introducing herself to East Clark County through a series of group lessons, which will be held on Fridays from April 21 to May 26 for children ages 6 to 8, and Mondays from April 24 to May 22 for children ages 3 to 5.

“(These sessions will be good for) people want to sample music lessons but don’t want to commit for too long,” she said. “The groups will be small — four kids maximum — so (they will) get some one-on-one time, ensemble music making, a little mix of everything.”

Ross grew up in California, earned an undergraduate degree in music education from the University of the Pacific (Stockton, California) in 2007, and completed a masters degree in piano performance at the Longy School of Music (Cambridge, Massachusetts), where she studied with renowned performer Randall Hodgkinson, in 2010.

For the next seven years, she performed as a soloist and in chamber ensembles at various Boston-area locales, including Longy’s Pickman Hall, New England Conservatory’s Brown Hall and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, and freelanced for and collaborated with a variety of professional musicians and organizations, including the Boston New Music Initiative, Boston Children’s Chorus, the Halalisa Singers, and Toby Oft, the principal trombone player of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

“When you’re a working musician, you’ve got to balance practice time with (the rest of your) life, and you have a bunch of different gigs that you have to juggle,” she said. “I think (those experiences) really helped me hone my sight reading skills, time management skills, and also (taught me how to handle my) performance anxiety. I think those skills are so important to pass on to my students because most of them are not going to go to graduate school and study piano. They’re going to practice a little bit on the side while they juggle a career and life and everything else. I can work with people that want to fit in piano around other things because I’ve had to do that. I can help them learn how to perform confidently because I’ve had to do that. And I can help them learn to look at a piece of music and figure it out quickly when they don’t have a ton of time to prepare, because that’s another thing I’ve had to do.”

During that time, Ross also taught piano at the Brookline School of Music in Brookline, Massachusetts.

“I played with a lot of groups and did accompanying and freelancing all over the place,” she said. “Then I just sort of realized that I love teaching, and it suits my personality really well. I like the consistency of the schedule quite a bit, and so I’ve just sort of shifted more in that direction.

I was teaching pretty much full time for a few years prior to (moving back to California), and I really loved it,” she continued. “But I had all of these ideas for how I wanted to teach and how I wanted to set up my program. I had a lot of freedom (at the Brookline), but some of it was set by the confines of what the school was offering. I had a lot of ideas for how I would want to run a business, and so (when I decided to relocate back to California), I figured, ‘I’m moving, this is a good time to start fresh.'”

She launched Music Con Brio in 2018, in Livermore, California, starting with in-person lessons and adding virtual offerings in 2020 at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“My (students) are spread out all over the country at this point, which is really fun,” she said. “I have students that I worked with in Boston when they were 4 years old, and they’re in high school now, and I get to work with them again. I’ve had a few students move away and continue online with me post-move. I just really love both formats, actually. Virtual is really fun for a lot of reasons, and in-person is just a different energy. I’m really excited to connect with more people here and get some in-person folks coming in.”

For more information about Music Con Brio and its offerings, visit musicconbriopiano.com.