It’s a gloomy Wednesday afternoon in Richardson, TX. I arrived at Linda’s small garage-turned piano studio a little before 4 pm. She opened the door with a smile on a face, excited to sit down with me to talk about her passion for teaching. At 78 years old, Linda is stylish and beautiful in her black maxi dress, blue turquois cardigan, and matching necklace.
When we think of the people that have made an impact in the Dallas’ Vietnamese community, we cannot forget Linda Secor. Linda is no ordinary piano teacher, not because she’s been teaching piano for more than fifty years, but because all her students are Vietnamese. With a reported 8 out of 10 piano students drop out of lessons after just two years, almost all of Linda’s students stay for the entire twelve years, from first grade all through high school. You can hear her students playing piano for Catholic masses in the Dallas area and competing in festivals and competitions, taking home top prizes. More than a teacher, Linda is a counselor, advisor, and sometimes a second parent to her students. They have been with her since they were five years old and have shared their childhood and adolescent years with a teacher who helped give them the gift of music.
Linda grew up as the only child in a small town near San Antonio. Growing up on a farm, Linda is well versed in gardening and is currently a master gardener, planting fresh vegetables to serve the community. Linda graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Piano from the University of Texas at Austin and a Masters in Piano Pedagogy from the University of North Texas.
I sat down with Linda to talk about her passion for teaching, love for her students, and picking up a new instrument in her 70s.
Can you give us some background on your childhood?
I grew up in the country as an only child. I begged to play the piano. My parents let me do guitar first, and I didn’t like it. I would avoid practicing any chance I got. I was in the 3rd or 4th grade when I finally started the piano with a very old private teacher. I played piano throughout middle and high school. There were only two piano teachers in town at that time – one was the pastor’s wife, the other was my old teacher.
You pursued your college and post-graduate degree in piano. What led you to choose piano as your field of study?
My aspiration as a child was to be a nurse. That’s what all the girls wanted to be back then, more so for the cute nurse outfit. I remember one day working at the doctor’s office. The doctor was out that day; it was just the nurse and I. A guy had come in with a big laceration to his leg. The nurse asked me to assist in sewing him up. That was the last thing I remembered when I woke up next to the patient. Both of us had passed out. I knew that I couldn’t stand the sight of blood. Music was what else I could do, and I pursued it.
You came from a very small town and took lesson from a private teacher, how did you adjust to your first year studying music at the University of Texas at Austin:
I literally cried my first year or two. My private teacher was also from a small town. None of her students had pursued music at the university level. She did not prepare me for college. It was a shock to be with other students at the university.
What made you choose piano teaching over becoming a concert pianist?
Well, we didn’t have much money at that time. Even though I graduated second in my class, we needed the money. I started teaching during my undergraduate years and helped support myself through college.
Did you start teaching Vietnamese students at the beginning of your career?
No, when I started teaching, I didn’t have any Asian students. I didn’t start teaching Asian students until about 20-30 years ago when I started teaching students from a small Chinese pre-school. I had Chinese and Japanese but not Vietnamese students until about 20-25 years ago. I started with just a few Vietnamese students, and through word of mouth, my student panel expanded. I am currently teaching a little over 30 students.
What is the most enjoyable part about teaching piano?
I think the most rewarding part of teaching piano is influencing the students’ lives and watching them grow.
Do you notice any difference between teaching Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese students?
Yes, definitely. In general, most of my Vietnamese parents are willing to come to the lessons and learn music to help their children practice at home. They don’t just send their kids to the lessons. Here, the success of the students is dependent on 3 people– the student, the parent, and myself. When one of those things is not in place, learning, in my opinion, does not occur.
What are your expectations when you take in a new student?
Well, they have to understand that they need a decent piano, not a keyboard and not a worn out piano, for the child to develop good finger strength. Also, at the first evaluation, the parents have to be willing to practice with the child at least 6-7 days a week. I am here to teach your children, not to practice with them.
What if the parents do not have any musical background?
They don’t need any. Come to the lessons and you will learn along with your child. You can take notes, record the lesson, and you will learn a lot for yourself also. Very few of my parents are musicians themselves.
At what age can children practice on their own without help from a parent?
Probably not until they are in the 5th or 6th grade. Most of my students start in kindergarten or first grade and do not have the independence to practice on their own. They need structured practice
Your students start very young, 5-6 years old. How long do they usually stay?
Besides some rare situations, most of my students stay until they have graduated from high school. It’s been my experience, and there’s been research done on this as well, that if students stay in lessons until their brain has quit growing, they will retain the information. If a student quits too early, they will lose their skills. Whatever you invest during that time is gone. But if they take through high school, they may even go off to college and not take piano for a few years and come back and all those skills will still be there. They maybe slow, but the skills do come back.
You mentioned that you need a good piano even as a young age. I know a lot of parents do not want to invest in a good piano due to fear that the young child may not continue playing for a long time. How do you feel about that?
I think that the parents should buy the best piano they can afford at that time. I recommend buying from a reputable seller, because when it’s time for you to upgrade, you can trade in your old piano. I do not recommend going on Craig’s list or ebay and buy a $200 piano from someone you do not know. Keyboards are not acceptable. The keyboard keys are short and do have much weight. This is very damaging to the skill of the child.
You are in your late 70s and recently started taking lessons in cello. What made you want to learn a new instrument at this time in your life?
Well, I’ve always wanted to learn to play two instruments before I die – the cello and the harp. I am saving to buy a much better cello. The truth is, if you have a good instrument, you will sound better. I practice about 5-6 hours a week on the cello.
What are some advices to parents wanting to start children in piano?
Basically, you have to decide as a parent that you want to give your child a musical education. You don’t leave it up to the children if they want to do something, just like with school. And the road to success is not a straight ladder up; it’s up and down. Some days are better than others, but you make that decision because you know that when your children are older, they can use the piano as a means to escape when they are treated badly at school, when they are sad, angry. They can express many things through piano, because it is an expressive instrument. Music has been proven as an outlet for anger, sadness, and frustrations.