Paula’s Story

"How Did I Get Here?" ~David Byrne

At the age of 13, I had a crystal clear image in my mind.  This image was of my future self- performing as a solo pianist in the middle of a grand stage, in a beautifully lit concert hall, filled with red, velvet seats. Whenever I perform in coveted venues full of ambiance, history, and character, I am in awe of the opportunity of living out my childhood dream. 

 My earliest musical memories are of me and my grandmother playing together at the piano.
Childhood play often included duets with neighborhood kids, or accompanying friends singing the latest pop tunes. I spent hours in the basement, sitting at our old, out of tune upright, exploring new music, or preparing for my upcoming lesson. Completely self-driven and self-motivated, music has always been a magnetic and rewarding form of entertainment and exploration.

 Our nomadic family moved every couple of years due to my father’s job promotions. Two things remained constant throughout every move- my parents’ unwavering love and presence, and my complete  dedication to the piano. I always had a hunger and a drive to practice and to improve.  My parents would call me multiple times to the dinner table, and I would wait as long as I could, placing more importance on conquering a passage than on my dinner growing cold. As I got older and the moves became more difficult, I turned to the piano as a form of therapy and as a guiding force. Piano started to give me a purpose and an identity.

 Music has intuitively led me to new places both geographically and emotionally.  My intuition combined with my passion for piano has led me to a variety of life experiences- from a performing arts high school in the woods of northern Michigan, to five years immersed in a new culture in Montreal, to the thriving musical community of San Francisco. Moving a 15 year old with a strong social network is not easy. As a teen, we moved from Texas to Michigan. My former warm, sunny climate turned into a cold, grey, long winter. My family of five was suddenly a family of three, as my siblings went off to college.  My soul mate best friend (who is still a major part of my life) was now an expensive long-distance phone call away.

This difficult transition period turned into some life changing experiences. I gained valuable experience playing piano in our school show choir- “The Ambassadors”.  It was here that I met my community- my closest friends comprised of singers, dancers, and musicians.  Looking back, the experience of playing as a band member for musical productions prepared me for what I often professionally do now. The camaraderie and experience of learning music quickly and at a high level was invaluable. During that tumultuous year, I also wrote my first beginnings of a solo piano composition. I brought the beautifully moving theme to my private teacher and she complimented the piece but was not sure how to help me develop it further. It is my hope that through my teacher trainings and presentations, I can provide teachers with a some tools to foster creativity with their students.

 The major silver lining that revealed itself from the challenging move as a teen was finding Interlochen Arts Academy. I first heard about Interlochen by reading a short blurb in the newspaper about a student who received a scholarship to the school.  I picked up the phone, found out how to apply, prepared with my classical piano teacher, drove up with my parents and auditioned, and the rest is history. That serendipitous morning reading the paper completely altered the course of my life. It was at Interlochen that I truly found my tribe of artists, creators, dedicated teachers, and thinkers. The whole environment at Interlochen breeds innovation and excellence. Interlochen is a world class performing arts boarding school and is a utopia for young artists. Passionate kids from around the world all coexist and influence each other while being completely immersed in and dedicated to their art form. I thrived being surrounded by so many free-spirited, genuine, supportive, and inspiring people. Not only did I grow immensely as a musician, but I also studied ballet and creative writing. It was here that I grew musically and personally and realized I truly wanted and was able to pursue music as a career. My life as a professional pianist was no longer a distant fantasy.

 Through Canadian friends at Interlochen, I discovered McGill University in Montreal, where I obtained my undergraduate performance and education degrees. I believe in the importance of getting out of your comfort zone.  Living in a different culture with a new language pushes your comfort levels and offers growth. During my rigorous practice sessions trying to master Bach and Beethoven, I would frequently take brain breaks and simply start improvising. My improvisations made no logical sense but they were highly therapeutic for me.  A jazz musician friend of mine heard me and said “You are practicing free improvisation!” I had no idea what that meant at the time. I would connect deeply with the concept a few years later. After practicing, I would revel in the recordings of Keith Jarrett’s solo improvisation albums such as the Koln Concert and La Scala.

 After Montreal, my graduate studies brought me to lovely San Francisco. I based my school decision on the location, as I knew San Francisco would be a thriving hub for musicians, artists, and great food. As soon as I graduated, I became a faculty member at a non-profit music school called Community Music Center. Their mission statement of offering lessons to everyone, regardless of income, resonated with me. It was there that I took a Latin and Flamenco ensemble performance class. The teacher was Chus Alonso- a multi-instrumentalist composer from Spain. Chus was to become a mentor, collaborator and dear friend. During one rehearsal, he asked me to improvise by myself. I started one of my “free improvs” and he had to hold back the laughter. I clearly remember him saying in his endearing accent, “Well, you have to think in a key!”  I took the class for many years and learned how to churn out a decent solo with the group. We later collaborated on multiple performance projects and I am grateful for the opportunities I had learning from, performing with, and recording with Chus.

 The Community Music Center had a binder in the front office, full of faculty bios and photos. An eccentric composer by the name of Matt Small wandered into the music school in search of a pianist to play in his group Matt Small’s Chamber Ensemble. He was impressed by my bio and saw my picture and thought “she looks nice.” He went home and sent me an email titled “Seeking Pianist for Carnegie Hall Opportunity.” I immediately jumped on a phone call with him and later practiced his highly complex book full of two hours of music. We got accepted to workshop with world renowned trumpet player Dave Douglas and improvisational master pianist Marilyn Crispell- culminating in a performance at Carnegie Hall. What a dream come true. During the first day of the workshop, each one of us had to do a solo improvisation. I was initially somewhat horrified, but by the end of the week I started to really enjoy my public improvisations. I remember Dave Douglas saying “I highly encourage you to keep exploring improvisation.” As a classical pianist, to hear words like this from a living legend are truly invaluable. Our performance at Carnegie included a long, solo improvised piano solo. That priceless moment is forever etched in my memory. I am so grateful to have had many of my family members, including my grandmothers, supporting me in the audience.

 My serendipitous creative journey continued on. While teaching an adult student at the Community Music Center, the first book I wrote- Little Gems for Piano- came from a spark of an idea to create a set of rote pieces, and turned into a series of books used globally. My student wanted to perform in the upcoming recital but did not have any pieces he wanted to share publicly. I told him, “I can write something for you.” I immediately wrote a simply impressive piece called “Retreat” and he proudly performed it in the recital. The piece came out of thin air, in its entirety. After that moment, I had an inexplicable calling to compose music for students. Each of these pivotal, decisive moments involving studying music, moving, improvising, and composing, led to massive life changes and were guided by tuning in and following my intuitive musical path.

 Regardless of genre, music has a powerful way of shifting the energy in the room. As someone who has often felt quiet, or sometimes reserved in certain social situations, piano has always given me a voice.  Throughout my life, I have often heard that when I play, people can’t help but wake up and listen. On the way to a gig with Chus Alonso, I got lost and was stuck in traffic.  I arrived late and the group was already playing. I remember Chus being amazed at the way I instantly switched to performance mode and completely focused on the music. I attribute this skill to my yoga practice. While on a plane to Tulum, Mexico to do a yoga teacher training course, the man sitting next to me said, “Your soul must be very calm from all of that yoga and music!”.  I love the feeling of communicating with music and transporting people away from their everyday reality. There is something deeply satisfying about slowing down the chaos of the mind and life in general, and simply tuning in- connecting with the imagination, and to the soul that informs us of a meaningful experience.

 I had a successful and active career performing and teaching in the San Francisco Bay Area – playing in the longest running musical revue in history Beach Blanket Babylon, performing in innovative chamber ensembles, playing regularly in a beautiful concert hall with the Santa Rosa Symphony, accompanying prestigious private school choirs, and teaching abundantly. I felt like I was living out my childhood dream. Although I felt like a successful gigging musician, I started to yearn for more time for creative pursuits with music. After 20 years, my husband Alex and I decided to slow down and focus on a simpler lifestyle for our two daughters and we retreated to the peaceful, family friendly, beer loving mountain town of Bend, Oregon. Feeling completely disconnected from my extended family, friends, collaborators, and the musical world, I turned, yet again, to the piano. 

 When I confided to friends about feeling like I had abandoned my thriving musical career, I had a few eye opening conversations. My Greek singer friend Margarita reassured me that I would now have time to focus on my solo career.  At the time, I didn’t know what that looked like. Later, while visiting our old neighbors in Oakland, our friend Juli said “I don’t understand. It’s not like you’re not a pianist anymore.” At the time, the statement took me aback and I didn’t know how to respond, because she was right. I explained that the infrastructure of beautiful concert halls and concert series didn’t exist in our new town. Just like Margarita, she assured me that I could pursue my solo endeavors and use my network of musicians I’ve met all over the world to create new opportunities.

 While composing the most advanced level for my Little Gems educational series, I started to discover these new opportunities. I decided to remove the barrier of trying to write for students, and instead I wrote for a professional level. While my family was out skiing one wintry day, I stayed home and spent 4 hours composing the 45 second introduction to my most complex piece “Revolt and Reveal”. This piece is a triumphant story that deals with universal feelings of uncertainty, appreciating lapsing moments of simple beauty, and overcoming hardships. I proudly premiered the piece in San Francisco, at the Community Music Center, with my fellow piano faculty colleagues. Chus Alonso was in the audience, cheering me on. This was the first piece that spawned the idea for my original solo album that would later become Central Star.

Visual artist Adrian Arias was inspired to create a painting while listening to  “Revolt and Reveal”. Of course, I couldn’t help but buy his gorgeous work of art, and now I keep in on the piano and compose while looking at it. Around the same time, choreographer and longtime collaborator Kevin Jenkins reached out about the possibility of staging my compositions for performances in Miami and Chicago.  These two events were exactly what I needed at the right time and completely changed my outlook and perspective.

Once again, my guiding star- my piano- has taken me by the hand and led me to my next life phase. My album Central Star is a cathartic, therapeutic set of compositions that serves as an emotional and creative outlet in my adventure as a solo composer. When I sit down at my newly restored 1912 Steinway, new music simply pours out of the instrument. I sometimes feel that I am merely a conduit for its message. When dealing with the joys and challenges of parenthood, I am grateful to have my instrument as a healthy escape from reality. It immediately calms and centers me. With the help of coffee, close personal connections, yoga, music, and a bit of wine, I feel equipped to handle whatever life brings. From the out of tune upright of my youth, to my present day gorgeous Steinway M (another dream come true), music always has been my guide.

 Today, as I live out my childhood vision on various concert stages (that may or may not be filled with red, velvet seats), I find deep satisfaction from awakening people, igniting their imaginations, and lifting their souls through my musical creations. I am so grateful for my collaborations with other artists such as choreographer Kevin Jenkins and visual artist Adrian Arias.  They are a reminder of the adventurous nature of life as a musician.  One never knows where it might lead. I am forever grateful to have music as a comforting life guide, leading me on my twisting, winding, creative journey. Music is a language that I use to communicate to the universal human spirit that resides within us all.

If you are still awake and want to learn more about my younger years as a musician, feel free to click here.