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(Enlarge) JoAnna McCray, 13, practices malaguena, a type of Spanish song, for Carla Ruffin, piano instructor for Fort Meade's Schools of Knowledge, Inspiration, Exploration and Skills program. (Photo by Lisa R. Rhodes)

One of the things JoAnna McCray likes about the holiday season is being able to play Christmas songs on the piano.

"I like playing for other people, especially around the holidays," said JoAnna, an eighth-grader at Bethel Christian Academy in Savage. "I like the music to be a centerpiece. When I'm playing, I have a feeling I want to share in the music."

JoAnna is one of 13 young people enrolled in the piano program that is part of the installation's Schools of Knowledge, Inspiration, Exploration and Skills program.

Elizabeth Lombardo, the SKIES instructional program specialist, said SKIES classes such as dance and Tae Kwon Do require personal instruction and provide an opportunity for children to develop varying skills.

Carla Ruffin, a retired staff sergeant and former musician with the First Army Band and several other Army bands in Texas, South Korea and Panama, has been the SKIES piano instructor for four years.

"The parents love her," Lombardo said. "She has a good reputation."

A student of Ruffin's for two years, JoAnna is one of her most promising pianists, surpassing the other students because of her discipline, said Ruffin.

"JoAnna is a delightful student," she said. "She really worked hard at learning how to perform."

The 13-year-old, who has had an interest in piano for a long time, first learned of the SKIES program in Soundoff! and shared it with her mother.

"I enrolled her because she was more interested than my other children," said Melody McCray, who is also a pianist. "I'd love for all my children to play. The piano is a very fundamental musical instrument."

JoAnna's father, Maj. Edward McCray, works at the 200th Military Police Command. The family lives in Potomac Place.

Ruffin instructs her students, ages 5 to 14, in the music room at the Youth Center. Classes are offered Monday, Tuesday and Thursday from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Students learn music theory, piano technique and piano performance. Ruffin, who earned a degree in music education from Hampton University in Virginia, assigns homework every week and recommends that her students practice at least once a week for a half hour.

"Music is inspirational," said Ruffin, who also works as a guidance counselor at Chesapeake High School in Pasadena. "When you learn how to play an instrument, you can take that anywhere you go."

JoAnna said one of the challenges she faces is "getting used to the notes on the scale and making them coordinate with the keys on the piano."

Melody McCray said JoAnna's top priority after school is homework, but her daughter usually practices at least twice a week for 30 minutes.

Ruffin is also helping JoAnna prepare for an upcoming talent show at school and with learning new Christmas songs.

JoAnna's ultimate goal is to compose her own music.

"I love music. ... It's really fun for me to create my own things," she said. "My heart goes out to the music."

Ruffin, who was raised in a musical family and also plays woodwind instruments, said JoAnna's interest in songwriting and composing is noteworthy.

"I think it's tremendous," Ruffin said. "She's learning music theory, music notation, rhythm, harmony, chords. ... You do have the opportunity to be creative."

Ruffin said learning to play a musical instrument helps young people become disciplined, focused and more self-confident as well as improving their math skills.

"You know you can do something well," she said.

Once a year, Ruffin's students perform in a recital that is part the SKIES talent showcase. So far, JoAnna has performed in two SKIES recitals.

"When I sit down behind a piano, I feel more confident in what I'm doing," JoAnna said of performing in public.

Someday, JoAnna, who also plays basketball and likes to draw and write, wants to play the violin. Her 11-year-old sister GraceAnna is a violinist.

Ruffin said her students are not the only ones to reap the benefits from the piano program.

"I enjoy watching them perform and grow into young musicians," she said, "and to see the joy in their parents' faces."

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