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  • Writer's picturevivianpiano

An unexpected path

Updated: Jul 22, 2023

I started playing the piano at 5 years old and loved to read new pieces like others read stories. I was always sightreading music from old anthologies stacked on our piano at home and checking out music from my teacher's library. I could hardly wait to get to the piano whenever a new piece was assigned to me! By highschool, I debuted with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and became very intent on pursuing a career in music. At the Juilliard School, I dreamed and worked towards my ultimate goal of becoming a university or conservatory professor. In short, even with my fancy degrees and attempts to get there, this dream did not materialize for me.

For years, I felt I was surely a disappointment to my Doctorate-granting alma mater and had not fulfilled my potential as a musician. There were days I felt that if I never played the piano again, no one would miss it. My freelance earnings could barely pay for a sitter and doors were closing for a more serious reason: my young son had just been diagnosed with autism and needed a level of interactive care I could not trust to anyone else. Those were hard days. I distinctly remember my mom sitting me down one day and telling me to never stop playing, convinced I would seriously come to regret it. Those words stuck with me and I believed her during a time when I didn't know what to believe. I made sure to keep a foot in the door and by foot I should explain that some days my pinky toe was all I could spare. I would practice while my young kids banged on the keyboard in another register and went to great lengths to hide my difficult situation from the few regular gigs I had.

What I didn't realize at the time was that all of my son's early intervention services I was sitting in on (and the parent training I received) were radically helping me - as much as my son - prepare for the future. His intensive educational and behavioral therapies showed me how to teach a student that appeared not always willing or motivated and the importance of figuring out how to capture the student's attention and engage (albeit, with a mini M & M candy next to my eyeball, at the time, as I spoke to my son). The months and years of interventions, endless search for solutions, and the close relationships I developed with teachers and other parents were deeply informative and personal; they brought home the importance of parental hope and love in a student's meaningful learning, taught me to recognize and celebrate the teeniest victories, and forced me to recognize and address my own biases.

One day, it was my turn to visit my son's nursery school class during snack time. On a whim, I brought my violin and played some children's tunes. This was the moment I suddenly began to realize another ship was arriving after believing that the only one that existed had long sailed away. This visit turned into more invitations to bring my violin and surprisingly, a contract music job at the school, then more jobs at other schools, mommy & me classes, special needs classes, and piano lessons for kids. Over years, I gained a reputation as a teacher who worked well with kids and kids with challenges. Turns out that my position was rather niche, being not just a pianist nor "just" an early education teacher, I was both and with personal connections to the special needs community. By teaching in early education it also meant I was teaching while my son was in school, and home when my son was home, and as my students grew up they signed up for piano lessons with me.

Over time, I learned how to accept certain circumstances and embrace my story. Before there were programs that made it easier, I built, wrote and maintained my first website, being very meticulous about keeping it updated. By sharing my work and aspirations online, this is how many people got to know me, including my alma mater, a decade later, when they needed a pianist for their summer program teaching kids.

By the time covid hit, I had been self-employed and doing things on my own for so many years, I was well-prepared to organize virtual programming on my website. It was such a difficult and confusing time in the world, and I was able to use my organizational and web developing skills I had been practicing to introduce over 200 students to 40 professional musicians in Zoom programs. I also added faculty to my piano studio to meet demand and taught over 2000 piano lessons and classes online during those days.

Along the way I mentored a teenage pianist from Afghanistan and helped her find her way to the US. She is now at University of Michigan and doing well. I also started mentoring recent grads and midlife career changers in a piano start up company and helped them develop their professional materials and online presence. It has felt good to help others in practical ways and to know that I've come a long way from those earlier days that seemed upside down and impossible.

Today, my young son is a rising 3rd year student at Beacon College studying graphic arts design and I could not be more proud. I have also been reading through a ton of music in my spare time, lately, in part to look for appropriate repertoire for my students but also for fun, just like the good old days! I am so grateful I did not quit.

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