The "By George, By Ira, By Gershwin" performance at Baltimore's Gordon Center tonight was entirely sold out! I was thrilled to perform George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" with the Greenspring Valley Orchestra.
Photos by Jeff Higdon
In June 2015, twenty-year-old Alyssa Howell won the hearts of the audience and judges at the Miss Nebraska pageant with her performance of Elizabeth Borowsky's "Northern Lights." Her sparkling and powerful rendition then impressed the judges at the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City (September 8-13, 2015) as she vied for the title of Miss America, earning her a spot in the Top 12 semi-finalists on national television.
Alyssa studied with Elizabeth Borowsky through high school, including participating in the prestigious Intermuse International Music Institute and Festival USA and serving as assistant to the director and student activities coordinator.
Northern Lights was written by Elizabeth for her own participation in the Miss Maryland program, and she was thrilled that Alyssa brought it to the Miss America stage.
Last night, I was teaching a piano lesson to a 7th grader named Lisa. In the four years I’ve been working with her, I’ve never, ever, seen a grumpy look on her face, even if I’ve had to virtually deconstruct each and every measure... as I had to do last night. I felt bad, having to stop her every couple notes for a correction, but each time she said, “okay” and tried again. At the end of the lesson I told her, “Lisa, you’ve been working on this piece for so long, and I know it’s really hard. And I’m really impressed that you respond to my corrections by smiling!”
She grinned: “Of course! It’s because I know that you want to help me get better!”
I paused for a moment, and then, secretly hoping to get a little inspiration for tonight’s talk, asked her, “I’m curious.... what does playing the piano mean in your life?”
She paused for a moment, then responded slowly. And her answer really summarizes everything I do, and why I do it, and why I love it...
But before I tell you what she said I want to remind you it's been almost 10 years since I graduated from Towson.
Aaaaand… Despite that, there I was, looking for advice from a 7th grader on what to tell you.
I can’t say was a born entrepreneur. To be honest, when I was first notified that I’d be receiving this award, I was a little worried that I wasn't successful enough. I’m nowhere close to being a Fortune 500 company, or even a Fortune 5 million company, and my retirement savings would last me about a half year in today’s economy.
So before a 7th grader, I asked someone else with a reliable perspective for advice: Google.
I searched “am I an entrepreneur?” and found the following definition:
“Entrepreneur: someone who would rather work 18 hours for herself than 8 for someone else.”
Yup! If success is determined by the level of satisfaction I feel in my work, or even the vision of the future I am working towards in each of my endeavors, then I feel pretty successful.
I believe, that success in any undertaking is intimately linked to a perseverant attitude, a desire to see the task through, and the ability to laugh at yourself.
For example, a few years ago I bought a manual transmission car. I didn’t know how to drive stick shift yet, so my brother had to drive it home for me. But I figured that if 80-90% of cars in Europe are stick shift and I’m at least as intelligent as the average European… or at least my brother… I should be able to figure it out. I did grind through the gears, but eventually got it.
In graduate school, despite being on a full scholarship and teaching assistantship, I was barely making ends meet and didn't want to take a loan. I quickly realized that despite my degrees and previous accomplishments, no one was going to hand me a job. So I looked at the classified ads and found one looking for a...“neat freak.”
I assumed they needed a cleaner...and answered the ad. Thankfully I was right. I walked two miles (in the snow), and spent 7 hours cleaning up a teen boy’s extreme-makeover-worthy bedroom, turning it into an organized space Martha Stewart would approve of, for a grand payment of… 50 bucks. The moral of the story...? (I have no idea. I still think I should have asked for more money.)
Fast-forward a couple of years: I moved back to Maryland, taught in several music programs, and soon realized how much more I wanted to be able to offer my students. Before I knew it, I was literally building a studio with my family and signing paperwork to found Piano Prodigies LLC. The business concept was simple and old-fashioned - develop a great product, serve the customer, and build their trust.
My studio grew in the best possible way - through word of mouth - and is now filled to capacity with a wait-list. The best part? My students. They, their siblings, and their parents, have become my extended family. I can affectionately call them the United Nations, as together they represent America, China, Taiwan, Ukraine, Iran, Israel, the Philippines, Kenya, and Lithuania. And I learn so much from all of them about them, the world, and myself.
At any rate, with all this work I need to go to yoga… a lot. My students know that I am stubbornly intent on being able to master the handstand. I brought it up at a recent student recital to explain how it’s similar to music… and to life… and to success. Sometimes it's goes better, sometimes worse. I fall. A LOT. But I won't get better if I don't keep practicing, and I’ve got to give it my best attempt every chance I got, whether or not anyone else is there to see me. You can learn a lot from falling, and from "catching yourself." And you can smile through the process. When the going gets tough, and every part of you wants to run away or stop... you CAN stick through it and persevere. Acknowledge the feelings of frustration, tiredness, and fear... but keep breathing, keep playing, and then go on and try again.
Music serves as a catalyst for our development. It's been a catalyst for mine. First as a student, then as a performer, then as an entrepreneur… but the most satisfying discovery has been as a teacher.
While being an entrepreneur in music I've spent a lot of time looking for the right key to success, and I hit it by teaching what I love.
So... when I asked Lisa...the 7th grader, “If you don’t mind me asking, why do you want to learn piano, anyway?” She gave me the answer that is the catalyst for everything I do, why I do it, and why I love it:
She paused for a moment, then responded slowly. “Every note… is like a word. And when you put them together, it’s like telling a story. I love telling stories! And besides, it makes me feel happy.” And… it makes ME happy.