58°F
weather icon Partly Cloudy

Renaissance Music Academy teacher helps children find their passion

A little more than a year ago, soon after Jina Umakanthan turned 11, she set out to make her daddy, Dr. Branavan Umakanthan, feel better.

Unlike many of his patients, the interventional cardiologist didn’t need a balloon catheter inflated inside an artery to help open a narrowing in his heart. His heart pumps just fine. Jina knew that what her dad needed — the regular soothing of his soul — wouldn’t come from anything learned in a medical school.

“I told her that when I hear classical music well played, particularly Debussy’s ‘Claire de Lune’ (‘Moonlight’) performed live, I find it soothing, that it takes away the stress built up from the operating room; it calms me,” the doctor said recently between patients at the Nevada Heart &Vascular Center. “I told her that in a few years, when she had many more years of piano lessons, I looked forward to her frequently playing for me. Now, ‘Claire de Lune,’ it’s a very complex classical piece — I played French horn myself, so I know how difficult it is. I certainly didn’t expect her to be able to play it well soon.”

Jina, however, with only five years of lessons to master French impressionist Debussy’s difficult key and tempo changes, saw no reason that she couldn’t learn “Claire de Lune,” the dramatic third movement of the “Suite Bergamasque,” included in the scores to movies as dissimilar as “Twilight” and “Ocean’s 11.”

Miss Lilith always tells us that we’re capable of playing music we love if we believe in ourselves,” said Jina, now 12, as she waited for a lesson at the Renaissance Music Academy in Henderson. “It took me a year of practice and Miss Lilith showing me how to play note by note, but I got it and now I make my father feel better.”

“Miss Lilith” is Lilith Tonapetian, a petite 44-year-old Armenian immigrant with long black hair who six years ago founded the music school on South Eastern Avenue. Students, ranging in age from 4 to early teens, arrive each afternoon after attending their elementary and middle schools. They love how she dances in waltz or gypsy fashion, sometimes casting aside her high heels, to give them a sense of the style of a piece. She also has been known to have a child lie under a piano she plays to give them a better sense of how much power a piece deserves.

She consistently sprinkles her teaching — her hands frequently playing air piano — with jewels of description that are delivered with the fervor of a Pentecostal preacher: “Play fast like wildfire going through the forest … Play so softly you can feel the air before your fingertips touch the piano … Play so your fingertips touch the water but don’t get wet … Try to paint the moonlight with your playing.”

That enthusiasm, Dr. Umakanthan believes, has much to do with his daughter’s progress. “I’m amazed at what Lilith has done — Jina plays beautifully for me now.”

On this day, Tonapetian, a concert pianist in the former Soviet Union, still basks in the glow of a March performance by her students in the Cabaret Jazz theater at The Smith Center for the Performing Arts. As she talks, the sounds of Bach and Chopin, played in nearby practice rooms by both piano and violin students, reach her office, which smacks of a 19th century European salon with its velvet draperies and Petrof grand piano.

“They all did so good, far above what anybody thought they could do … Jina was amazing,” she said in heavily accented English. “Every child has talent. A good teacher finds it. Each child is different and you must find how to reach them. I have them love music so much that they beg for difficult music to practice. I don’t ever say, ‘It’s not for you, sweetie.’ I make them believe they can do anything they want. I dream to have a school with 100 students, not 30.”

Parents have become true believers in the school, where piano, violin, cello, viola and voice students take from one to four private one-hour lessons a week, along with a mandatory one-hour weekly group class of music theory. An ensemble class, with students playing together on different instruments, is offered on Saturday. One of the school’s piano teachers, Narine Petrosyan, composes original pieces for the ensembles.

“I think because all the teachers are so passionate about music at the school, it’s contagious,” said Sandeep Reddy, who has her 9-year-old daughter, Sanjana, a violinist, and 8-year-old son, Sachin, a pianist, enrolled in the school.

As Sachin finished practicing his scales and a Bach sonata for an elated Tonapetian the other day, she squeezed both of his cheeks. “You’re so good,” she said to the slightly embarrassed but beaming boy. After 4-year-old Katarina Rainey and 8-year-old Sophia Pinter finished pieces for their teacher, they walked off looking at other pianos.

“I like practicing with my fingers,” tiny Katarina said as she showed off purple nail polish, “because I like fun.”

Lesson packages, which include the music theory class, cost from $350 a month to around $1,000. When students aren’t taking classes, they are still encouraged to come to the school to practice and socialize with other students interested in classical music. Many students, including 13-year-old piano student Nicole Bratu, do just that.

“It’s great to be around others who also love classic music,” she said. “A lot of kids do it. It’s fun to practice there.”

Tonapetian, who has two grown children of her own, has created the nonprofit Classical Music Foundation so she can make lessons available to children of modest means. “I don’t want to refuse any student who wants to learn classical music. I want them to come here and be around other children who love it.”

Danita Cohen, executive director of strategic development and marketing for University Medical Center, enrolled her 10-year-old twins, Mandy and Samanth Breen, in the school. “I thought at first they’d just be banging out ‘Chopsticks,’ but they’re playing Bach and Beethoven and love to practice. They know stories about the composers, stories about each piece. The love the teachers have for classical music really comes across.”

Before starting a child’s first lesson, Tonapetian plays 20 classical pieces for them. “I want to see what they like so we can work on classical music they will love,” she said.

To give a piano student confidence and a sense of how it sounds to have accompaniment, Tonapetian often has Valeri Glava, a concert violinist in the former Soviet Union and now a regular performer at The Venetian, play with the student. As 11-year-old Robert Sosinski practiced “Ave Maria,” Glava joined him. “That sounds nice,” Robert said.

Glava, a violin teacher at the school, is impressed by Tonapetian’s passion.

“The children feel how much she wants them to love music,” he said. “Her dream is to spread that love and she only has teachers who share that dream.”

As Jina, a seventh-grade honor student, began to practice “Claire de Lune” — “I still practice it here at the school because I know I can make it better” — she closed her eyes and swayed to the music she created.

“I love classical music so much,” she said after finishing. “It takes me to a different magical place, where I can enter and all my problems go away. I’m going to be a doctor like my father, but I’ll aways have to play the piano. It gives me peace. It soothes my soul.”

Read more from Paul Harasim at reviewjournal.com. Contact him a pharasim@reviewjournal.com and follow @paulharasim.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.
Entertainment Videos
Heavier traffic expected from EDC festival attendees
Electric Daisy Carnival attendees began to vacate the Las Vegas Motor Speedway starting before 5 a.m., the majority heading south on Interstate 15.
What it's like to skip the lines and fly by helicopter to EDC
What it's like to skip the lines and fly by helicopter to EDC. (Janna Karel Las Vegas Review-Journal)
DJ Steve Aoki visits Las Vegas comic book store
DJ Steve Aoki visits Torpedo Comics in Las Vegas Friday, May 17, 2019, for a signing for his new comic book series "Neon Future." (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Las Vegas Smith & Wollensky opens at The Venetian
After 18 years, the Smith & Wollensky location on Las Vegas’ south Strip closed in 2017, to be re-born two years later with a rib-cutting — instead of a ribbon-cutting — in The Grand Canal Shoppes at The Venetian. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Review-Journal)
Colin Cantwell, Creator Of Iconic Star Wars Ships Visits Vegas
Colin Cantwell, who created and designed such "Star Wars" ships as the X-Wing fighter, and Death Star, met fans at Rogue Toys in Las Vegas today. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Beauty & Essex in Las Vegas makes an EDC Wonder Wheel
In honor of the Electric Daisy Carnival, Beauty & Essex at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas makes its Wonder Wheel party-worthy. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Giada talks Vegas Uncork’d
Giada De Laurentiis talks during Aperitivo Hour, a Vegas Uncork'd event, at her Caesars Palace restaurant, Pronto, May 10, 2019. (Al Mancini/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Scenes from Vegas Uncork’d 2019 on the Las Vegas Strip
The 13th edition of Vegas Uncork’d by Bon Appetit brought four days of food, wine, celebrity chefs and parties to town, May 9-12. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Three ingredients Gordon Ramsay can’t live without
Bon Appetit's Andy Baraghani interviews the "Hell's Kitchen" chef during a Vegas Uncork'd event at Caesars Palace, May 11, 2019. (Al Mancini/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Vegas Uncork’d launches wiith bubbles and a blade
Dozens of chefs representing some of the Strip’s top restaurants gathered Thursday at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas to launch the 2019 edition of Vegas Uncork’d by Bon Appetit. (Al Mancini/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Bunky the Clown at the clown convention
Bob "Bunky the Clown" Gretton talks about his life as a clown and the Clown Convention which was in Las Vegas at Texas Station this week. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Frying soft-shell crab at Lola’s in Las Vegas
At Lola’s: A Louisiana Kitchen in Las Vegas, soft-shell crab is breaded and fried and served either as an appetizer, po’boy or platter. Heidi Knapp Rinella/Review-Journal
The Stove in Henderson makes Pecan Pie Pancakes
At The Stove in Henderson, chef/partner Antonio Nunez stacks buttermilk pancakes with pecans and dulce de leche and tops them pie crust crumbs. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Vinnie Paul remembered at Count's Vamp'd
The late rocker's favorite table at one of his favorite clubs in Las Vegas. (Jason Bracelin/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
4DX movie experience at Red Rock
4DX movie experience during a demo reel at Red Rock. (Christopher Lawrence/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
What To Do On May The 4th
There are plenty of events going on May the 4th this year around Las Vegas. Celebrate Star Wars and Comic Book Day all at once. The Rogue Toys, the 501st, Rebel Legion and Millennium Fandom Bar are all hosting fun events to help celebrate your geek-dom. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Las Vegas Water Sports Introduces New Attraction At Lake Las Vegas
Las Vegas Water Sports will debut its new aqua park attraction at Lake Las Vegas Days this weekend. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Making the Space Invader at Greene St. Kitchen in Las Vegas
Lysa Huerta, pastry cook at Greene St. Kitchen at the Palms in Las Vegas, starts with angel food cake, Fruity Pebbles ice cream and strawberry sorbet to create a space creature engulfed in flashing lights and swirling mists. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas Pools
The M, Park MGM and NoMad are just a few great pools in Las Vegas. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Jose Andres explains Iberico pork
(Al Mancini/Las Vega Review-Journal)
Inside Life is Beautiful
Craig Asher Nyman explains how Life is Beautiful festival is booked and talks about this year's line-up. (Jason Bracelin/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Tattoo'd America Pops Up In Vegas
Tattoo'd America, a new pop-up attraction on the Linq Promenade, had their grand opening Friday. The attraction is dedicate to the culture of tattoos. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Jose Andres gets key to the Strip
Chef Jose Andres was presented with a Key to the Las Vegas Strip and a proclamation declaring April 26 Jose Andres Day in Clark County by County Commissioner Tick Segerblom on Friday. The ceremony took place at his restaurant Bazaar Meat in the SLS Las Vegas. (Al Mancini/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Sadelle’s in Las Vegas makes a grilled cheese with an inverted bagel
Michael Vargas, executive sous chef at Sadelle’s at Bellagio in Las Vegas, inverts an everything bagel and grills it with Swiss, cheddar and Muenster cheeses to make the Inverted Bagel Grilled Cheese. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Learn how to make China Poblano's Salt Air Margarita
Learn how to make China Poblano's Salt Air Margarita (Janna Karel Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Tattoo'd America invites you to have fun and take pictures
Kassandra Lopez at Tattoo'd America invites you to have fun and take pictures. (Janna Karel/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Prime rib is carved tableside at Lawry’s The Prime Rib in Las Vegas
Dave Simmons, executive chef of Lawry’s The Prime in Las Vegas, which plans special cuts for National Prime Rib Day, demonstrates the restaurant’s service from rolling tableside carving carts. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Making gluten-free pizza at Good Pie in Las Vegas
Good Pie owner/pizzaiola Vincent Rotolo makes his gluten-free pizza.
Rockabilly fans enjoy Las Vegas weather poolside
Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly Weekender runs Thursday, April 18th through Sunday, April 21st with a huge car show on Saturday featuring The Reverend Horton Heat, The Delta Bombers and The Coasters. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Brownie sundae at VegeNation in Las Vegas is completely vegan
Donald Lemperle, chef/owner of VegeNation in Las Vegas and nearby Henderson, NV, makes his sundae with ice cream made with coconut and almond milks, a brownie made with coconut flour and oil and organic sugar and cacao, and fresh fruit. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
THE LATEST
Berkus and Brent create spring line for Living Spaces

Celebrity interior design couple Nate Berkus and Jeremiah Brent are back with another collection for Living Spaces. From French antique-inspired carved feet to geometric marble accents, the line has a range of pieces suitable for the minimalist to the statement-maker.

Myriad products make bathroom remodel fun

Bathroom products have changed in the past 20 to 30 years. So if you’re looking to remodel your old bathroom, shop around for the perfect flooring, cabinets, shower surround, bathtub, sinks, fixture and lighting.

Stay away from heirloom varieties of asparagus

Asparagus usually grows well here, but there are some differences among the varieties. Stay away from heirloom varieties such as Mary Washington because they don’t produce enough spears in any climate.