WEST SPRINGFIELD — Forty years ago, Ellen Buoniconti began giving piano lessons to children in the basement of her home. She took on five students at first, starting the business with modest expectations.

“My husband and I have four children. I was just hoping to earn extra grocery money,” she told Reminder Publishing.

By her second week in business, Buoniconti had 25 students. She prefers not to mention how many students she has had over time, but by her third year in business, she was so busy, her husband had to quit his full-time job to help her run the school — the Music Cellar, now celebrating its 40th anniversary.

“I quickly realized it was going to be something different, and it just took off. It wasn’t ever supposed to be a business, per se. I just wanted to stay home with the kids,” she remembered thinking.

Buoniconti offers private lessons in her sprawling 5,500-square-foot West Springfield home. There’s a separate entrance for students and their parents. The business takes up 25% of the house. There are five teaching rooms — each has a piano. There’s a waiting room in the midst of it all so parents can note what’s going on.

“The instructor offers critiques and tells parents what’s happening,” said Buoniconti. “We also encourage parents to sit in on the lessons. With money being as tight as it is, I want them to know exactly where their child is. I want to make sure every single family is enjoying everything they can about music.”

In the beginning, the Music Cellar was a solo operation, but there are so many students now, Buoniconti has hired five teachers to handle the massive demand for piano lessons.

“They were my students, and as they grew up and went to college, they would come back and want part-time jobs. All of my teachers have been my students at one time,” said the 74-year-old instructor.

Lessons are once a week, for a half hour, and they start at 2 p.m., when Buoniconti’s students are out of school. She and her staff teach lessons until 8 p.m. The students are as young as 4 years old, and as old as 81.

“We educate everyone beginning with the basics of note reading. This carries over to the public school systems, because a lot of our students are in the bands. We supplement what the schools are cutting out of music programs,” said Buoniconti.

When the Music Cellar opened four decades ago, music captured a more prominent role in the lives of children. Buoniconti said there are so many distractions today — like social media, mobile phones, computers and electronic games — that now, for too many kids, learning an instrument plays second fiddle to everything else.

“Forty years ago, children had more time to sit and practice. They were more focused. As time has evolved, a lot of parents want their children in multiple things. They have to try to find the time to practice their music,” she said.

Life may have changed and become more complicated, even distracting, but Buoniconti said the fundamental benefits of music remain.

“It unlocks self-expression, their intelligence and creativity. It can make quiet and shy children more engaged,” she said.

Buoniconti said a background in music makes her students more attractive to colleges and universities looking for applicants with diverse and significant accomplishments. She’s seen her students become nurses, doctors, lawyers and other professionals — and what they despised about their music lessons at one time, they now say is the secret to their success.

“I see the enlightenment of how music helps children in their education. I have students call me back and say, ‘I used to hate you at recital time because you made me memorize my music,’ but they admit memorization is helping them succeed at their jobs.”

The music school’s students come from across Western Massachusetts, along with nearby cities and towns in Connecticut. As the Music Cellar begins its fifth decade in business, the school has yet to hit its crescendo, with the school now attracting a fourth generation of students. Some of them are Buoniconti’s great-grandchildren, who played at a recent recital.

“It was an absolute honor to see the fourth generation of my family perform,” she said. “With four children, 10 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, it’s nice to see the music flow through the family.”

Staasi Heropoulos
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