Whenever Richard Afuso visited his mother-in-law at her Kauai nursing home, he noticed that music would lift her spirits.
"At the care home they were all sleeping there. And this guy comes and plays the piano, they all wake up," he said. "That really motivated me to go learn."
He resolved to try piano lessons and pursue other musical interests, but he didn’t get the chance until well after he retired. Now at age 81 he’s one of the most dedicated piano students at the Masaki School of Music and takes regular voice lessons at Palama Settlement. He even competes in karaoke contests.
"All the teachers at the school know him," said Alice Yeung, his teacher at the Masaki School for six years. "He comes here early every time. One time his lesson was at 9 a.m. He came at like 8:30 and practiced in the room before he came for his lesson."
Afuso’s musical pursuits are not without challenges. He has arthritis and carpal tunnel syndrome in his hands from his years as a carpenter. He doesn’t have a regular piano to practice on, just an electronic keyboard. And he gives in to that age-old problem every parent has faced with a recalcitrant child.
"I don’t practice," he said. "People say, ‘How long you take (lessons)?’ but I don’t count the years, I count how much I practice."
That attitude allows him to enjoy whatever he does accomplish and not worry about things he doesn’t. He’s currently working on "Happy Birthday," trying to improve enough to play it with both hands. He plans to play it in a recital soon.
"I know I can do it," he said.
Afuso grew up on Maui in a large family of plantation workers.
"We had pig, duck, chicken," he said. "We used to have that kind of toilet … with the water running underneath. The water keep on going, winding up in the cane field."
Work on the plantation meant there wasn’t much money or time for music lessons. Afuso would hear music at the Methodist church and learned to pick out melodies with one hand, but that was as far as he got on piano.
But someone gave him a harmonica, which he taught himself to play. It gave him a good basis for music.
"He has perfect pitch," Yeung said. "He always tells me the piano is out of tune."
Few things can keep Afuso from his lessons. For instance, he used to live in Honolulu and would drive to Mililani for lessons. His teacher in Mililani died, and at about that time, he moved to Mililani. Now he drives from Mililani to Honolulu for lessons.
And if Yeung, who also works as a teacher’s assistant, has to cancel his lesson, Afuso is persistent about getting it made up.
"He has the heart to continue to keep up with lessons," Yeung said. "Not everybody can do that."
Afuso is equally devoted to his singing. He competes in karaoke contests sponsored by KZOO, Hawaii’s Japanese radio station, finishing as high as third in his division. With a bit of prompting, he’ll gently croon the Eddie Arnold hit "I Really Don’t Want to Know" in both English and Japanese.
He worked mostly on renovation projects during his career as a carpenter but is now involved in building a home for himself and his daughter in Palolo. It will have space for a piano, and he’s hoping a piano will somehow "come my way."
He said he enjoys playing at the Masaki School’s piano recitals, especially since there are so many young musicians. "It kind of encourages them to learn," he said. "But if you give up, that’s pau."