Christmas songs play from a piano and echo throughout the halls of a West Phoenix home.
Aly Spiller, a 13-year-old piano student, takes a deep breath and begins to play “What Child Is This?”
Her piano teacher, Carol Whaley, watches as her fingers begin to dance fluidly over the keys.
For 40 years, Whaley has taught piano out of her home near 35th and Glendale avenues.
Lessons at an affordable price keep the Phoenix teacher in demand during a time when fewer schools can provide music lessons.
Linda Acosta brings her great granddaughter, Leila Escobar, to piano lessons from her home in Tolleson every Saturday.
“I don’t live close,” Acosta said. “But it’s all worth it to me knowing she can get quality lessons and at a reasonable price.”
Acosta started bringing her granddaughter to piano classes two years ago because music lessons weren’t part of the curriculum at her Tolleson school
“This year is the first year since they’ve been at their school that they have a music teacher,” Acosta said. “I’ve been living there since 2003, and I’ve never seen the school give music or band classes.”
Whaley negotiates with families, making sure money issues won’t prevent them from taking piano lessons.
“There are many children that wouldn’t be able to afford lessons or take lessons – that’s something they would put aside,” Whaley said. “So by having less expensive rates, it’s given them an opportunity to do it.”
Many neighborhood kids take lessons or were former students of Whaley.
Aly lives in the neighborhood and has taken classes for eight years.
“I stuck with it because once I get really good at it, it’s really fun to play,” Aly said. “You get it, and it feels really nice because you get that feel.”
Aly’s father, Rick Spiller, takes her to piano classes any time he can and lingers around to listen.
“I enjoy it,” Spiller said. “(It’s) something she’ll do the rest of her life. She’ll always be able to play music.”
Piano lessons are just the beginning. Whaley’s students see her as a friend.
Luisa Ibañez, a 12-year-old student who’s been playing for two years, said Whaley is kind and gentle and makes you feel a part of her family.
Luisa’s brother Raul Ibañez has played for about one year, and he describes Whaley similarly.
“She’s kind and loving,” Raul said. “She wants you to be better at playing piano, but she also wants you to be a better person in life.”
Whaley said many students see her as a safe zone.
“They want to talk to you, tell you their secrets and ask for advice,” she said. “So piano lessons are more than teaching piano, it’s being a friend for them.”
Outside her small home, where she teaches, Whaley is known as the neighborhood grandma.
Jesse Music, a neighbor who once took piano classes, can attest to Whaley’s impact.
“I’ve lived here my whole life, grew up right across the street,” Music said. “So she brings a lot to the community. A lot of the kids know her.”
Whaley’s students come to West Phoenix from places as far as Anthem.
Hever Huerta, whose three sons, along with himself, play piano and take lessons, also comes from Tolleson. He’s willing to make the drive because of Whaley’s teaching style.
“She’s really patient with the boys and with myself,” Huerta said.
When he listens to his sons play, it makes everything worth it.
“I love watching them play,” he said. “It’s worth every dime and every mile.”