Astoria Characters: The Teacher Who Makes Music Fun

There’s no music playing, but that doesn’t stop Laura Ziegler from dancing.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Laura’s the face behind JAM.

Arms thrust triumphantly in the air, she spins around to the tune in her head, her peasant skirt, the color of caramel, twirling around her like a top.

She stops, reluctantly.

She’s really happy.

With her life. With her job.

And she wants to express – and share — her joy.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Laura plays several instruments.

Laura, an exuberant woman whose wardrobe features a constant smile, is a music teacher, and the thing she knows is that everyone learns to hit the high and the low notes in a different way.

Some find their rhythm in the painstaking repetition of scales.

Others get their groove by playing by ear.

And Laura, well, she becomes excited helping them find their sweet spot, which is what she does every day as the director and lead teacher of the New York City branch of Just Accessible Music, which she officially opened in February.

Laura, who is from Chicago, got an early start on her own musical education.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
JAM has a variety of instruments.

Growing up in a household that she calls “loosely musical,” she used to play around with the keys on the old upright that was left over from her mother’s brief tour with a Renaissance band (don’t ask).

Anyway, she was so proud of her untutored progress that one day she announced that she had learned to play the beloved English lullaby “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”

 When she sat down and played, her mother was astonished.

The tune, if one could even call it that, was anything but “Twinkle.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Piano was the first instrument Laura learned to play.

At 8-year-old Laura’s express request, lessons commenced immediately, and by the time she was in fifth grade, she was in band playing the saxophone, too.

As she played her way through school, Laura figured she would become a teacher.

Of math, not music.

When she realized that people actually made their living teaching music, she switched.

After graduating with a degree in music education from Illinois State University, Laura did, indeed, head to the classroom.

She taught fifth-graders general studies in a public school in Central Illinois, then moved to Chicago, where she founded a music program for students in kindergarten through seventh grade in a public charter school.

But the pandemic killed the program – the students, many of them of meager financial means, didn’t have any musical instruments at home during the lockdown.

It was around this time that one of Laura’s college professors asked her to set up a New York City Branch of Just Accessible Music.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
How teaching music makes Laura feel.

“I was ready for something new,” Laura says, adding that she became a partner in the enterprise.

They chose Astoria because her professor had fond memories of the times she and her jazz band played here and because they wanted to teach a diverse group.

Laura, who arrived at the end of 2021, took care of the paperwork to set up the business and began booking private students for lessons until there was enough money to open an office.

“I got 50 students, and I was traveling from Riverside to South Ozone Park,” she says, adding that she was working seven days a week.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
A present from a young student.

In February, when Just Accessible Music opened an office, in the Pistilli Grand Manor on Ditmars Boulevard at 46th Street, “we exploded,” she says, adding that she’s hired seven teachers.

Laura, who says she plays the piano and the saxophone “well,” also “can play every instrument theoretically, but I am not going to be in Carnegie Hall with any of them.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Laura’s from Chicago.

She has students studying piano, violin, guitar, drums, voice and recorder.

At Just Accessible Music, which offers one-on-one lessons to children and adults, there’s no set curriculum.

“We find out what the student is interested in and feel out the musician on what works best,” she says. “Our goal is to get them to where they want to be. We foster a love of music, and we take it in steps and make it fun.”

And by fun, she means for the teacher as well as the musicians.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Laura loves her job.

Although Laura, who is 27, can’t personally take on any more students – she technically gets one day a week off but usually doesn’t take it (“I’m a workaholic”) – she plans to stay with her current ones as long as they continue to play.

Her youngest is 3, so she figures she’s pretty well set for the next 10 to 12 years before she switches exclusively to administrative work for Just Accessible Music.

“Just Accessible Music is my future,” she says. “I’m so happy being here. I’ve made this my life.”

Laura’s day is just beginning: She has seven students on the schedule.

One is coming to the Astoria office.

She’ll see the others in Manhattan.

Copyright 2023 by Nancy A. Ruhling