Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record
Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record
Mike Lively knows how to do a thing or two. The Dexter native has been teaching private piano lessons in Roswell since the 1970s. There’s no question that he’s a great teacher — just listen to his kids play.
But when Lively was a kid, he probably was just as fascinated by ominous summer storm cells as he was by the transcendent keyboard works of Beethoven and Bach.
His goal was to study meteorology in college and become a weatherman.
“I always loved the weather,” said Lively, who was born at St. Mary’s Hospital. “As a kid, one of the fun things I liked to do was sit in the backyard and watch the clouds develop.”
Lively attended Dexter High School through the 11th grade, then transferred to Roswell High School for his last year. RHS had more science classes that would help him prepare for the meteorology curriculum in college, he said.
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Lively went to the University of New Mexico, but was persuaded by his father to study accounting instead of meteorology. His father grew up during the Great Depression, and wanted his son to get into a field that had more financial security.
And even if accounting didn’t work out, Lively still had something to fall back on financially. His dad owned the hardware and lumber store in Dexter, so there was always the opportunity to work at his father’s business.
“I learned about the trades and involvement with people,” Lively said of growing up around the store.
But accounting wasn’t where his heart was at. “I would go into the fine arts building to practice (piano).”
Lively said after two years he changed his major from accounting to music. Instead of his dad getting flustered, Lively said his father was very supportive.
From NMU, Lively said he continued his music studies at North Texas State in Denton, Texas, then at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. He received a graduate student stipend at Baylor.
“I was a gopher for professors who were researching and writing books on music,” he said.
Lively graduated from Baylor with a master’s of music in theory, music literature and piano performance.
His wife, Melissa, was a special education teacher in Waco while he was a graduate student at Baylor. He said the public schools were desegregated the first year they were there, which was around 1972.
“In that year they started busing kids around to make things more equal,” he said. “My wife’s school was across the street from Baylor and it was very different. Baylor was somewhat insulated.”
While living in Waco, Lively said his father back in Dexter became ill. Along with that, the double-digit inflation during the 1970s took a huge bite out of his father’s profits from the hardware and lumber business.
Lively said he and Melissa moved to Roswell to help out his father, who nearly had a nervous breakdown from the stress of the business.
Lively said he built the house he still lives in on West Poe Street from lumber and supplies from the store.
Though he was running the hardware store to help his father, Lively said his heart was still in music.
“I ran the hardware store and built the house. I also taught piano lessons after work,” he said. “Melissa taught at Edgewood (Elementary School). I would ask her everyday, ‘Did anybody call about piano lessons?’”
His father eventually sold the hardware store in 1979 or 1980, Lively said. With two young children at that time, Lively said he decided to take the risk of being a full-time piano teacher.
Along with teaching lessons at his house, he was an adjunct music professor at Eastern New Mexico University-Roswell, teaching music theory, appreciation and piano classes.
Additionally, he got licensed to sell insurance.
Lively said selling insurance was a good way to get involved with people because “I’m a naturally shy person.”
Lively said he was taking on so many private students that he asked Melissa, who also played piano, to teach some of the younger students. The business grew so much that Lively added two more teachers to work with the beginners.
He said at one point there were four piano teachers, including himself, teaching piano lessons to over 90 students per week, which put a lot a stress on his home life.
“It was tough to have four people in the house teaching and raising kids,” he said.
Lively and Melissa have three adult children, two sons and one daughter. The couple is active at Christ’s Church, where he said they were called to lead a singles group for older adults. Lively occasionally shares his musical talents at the church.
He has scaled back his teaching load to about 40 to 50 students a week, which is still a good number. He retired from ENMU-R six years ago.
Adults who have taken piano lessons while they were kids will certainly remember the “method” books, where student starts out at the beginner level and then moves up through series of books that progressively get more challenging until eventually the student is playing the original versions of the great composers like Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.
For some students, working their way up from one method book to the next becomes tedious.
Lively said about 10 years ago he set up a way to make the method books more engaging for his students.
Thanks to technology, many of the method books now come with orchestral accompaniment soundtracks on CDs or audio files.
In simplistic terms, the kiddos get to play along with their own “backup orchestra.”
Not only does this help the students correct their rhythm — which he said is 80 percent of the challenge for a piano teacher — it “sparks” them visually to read the music, Lively said.
“Parents come to me and tell me their child picked up something by ear, and I always ask, ‘But can he read music?” Lively said.
He said pairing the method books with the orchestral accompaniments “spurs them on much quicker through the method books.”
Another big hammer in Lively’s toolbox is getting his students to listen to themselves play. “I ask them, ‘Are you listening to yourself play?’”
Once again, new technology, like the common smartphone, makes it much easier to record oneself — with both audio and video — than the old days when there were only cassette recorders and expensive video recorders.
“It’s important for them to hear what they play,” he said.
Lively said he likes to start out students at around age 6 with 15-minute lessons, and he covets the students he can keep through their senior year in high school.
Lively said his wife, who teaches special needs students, helped him come up with a way to motivate younger students. They developed a “point system” that rewards each student for performing and comprehending.
The points are kept track of on a dry marker, and at the end of the year there is an awards ceremony after the recital.
“That really motivates them,” he said. “There parents always ask, ‘How are they doing?”
And Melissa treats the younger children with candy.
But the “artificial motivation” that works at the beginning works less and less as the children grow older.
“Their ability to play becomes part of their lives regardless of points or candy,” he said. “I use positive reinforcement to bring life into their playing. They take ownership of their talent and are praised by others.”
Community News reporter Timothy P. Howsare can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 311, or firstname.lastname@example.org.