Things were great for Sarah not that long ago. She was a top student and a volleyball player at Ironwood Ridge High School. The volleyball team at the newly opened school was making quite a name for itself and would explode into the state championship game her senior year. Meanwhile, Sarah, as an individual, was making a run at a state title as well. A classically trained pianist since age 4, Sarah was a finalist in a Rachmaninoff competition and was drawing raves for her virtuoso performances of the difficult works of the Russian composer.
But then the pain started. It really wasn't much at first, but she definitely felt something in her hands. Because of her relatively diminutive stature, she had always played back row in volleyball, diving and digging the spikes that the opposing team sent her way. But her incongruous hands have long fingers that almost appear to have an extra set of knuckles on them. The fingers helped her play Rachmaninoff, considered by some to be the most challenging of all classical composers.
According to KUAT-FM's James Reel, Tucson's Casey Kasem of classical (and the Weekly's arts editor), Rachmaninoff's work requires an almost awkward spreading of the fingers. Reel says that the average pianist's hand, spread wide from the end of the thumb to the tip of the pinky, can cover about an octave on a piano keyboard. "But Rachmaninoff's hands could cover an octave-and-a-half," explains Reel, "from middle C to high G."
Sarah was so good that she received a full scholarship to study piano at the UA. She wanted to delve into theory and composition, but most of all, to continue to work on her playing. She had been branching off into Chopin and was working on some compositions of her own.
But the pain began to spread, first into her wrists, then up her arms, into her shoulders and then to her neck and back. Being something of a fitness junkie, she tried different forms of exercise, yoga and relaxation techniques--anything to keep from having to go the pharmaceutical route, which she felt would have a dulling effect on her playing.
She did give up volleyball before her senior year of high school and had to watch as her former teammates made it all the way to the Class 4A state championship game.
When that didn't work, she began seeing doctors. There was some concern because rheumatoid arthritis has shown up in her extended family; one relative has had to endure five hip replacement surgeries. But the doctors couldn't find anything physical to explain the pain. And when that happens, half the doctors start thinking "shrink," while the other half reach for their prescription pads.
"This one doctor started writing me a prescription before I was halfway through my explanation," she explains in frustration. "I don't want to take medicine; I really don't."
She can still play the piano for short stretches, but nowhere near long enough to approach what she used to be able to do. She continues to study music, but has now been informed by the university that her scholarship is being revoked because she is unable to perform musically at a high level.
I tried to ask somebody at the UA about this, but everybody these days hides behind the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which probably sounded like a good idea at first, but is used to cover all sorts of ills.
She'll be leaving town in a couple weeks to attend a summer program at UC-Berkeley. After that, she's not sure what she'll do. "I might take a semester off to just work. If they do take away my scholarship, I'll have to find a way to pay my way through school. Plus, if I'm not in the music department any more, I'm going to have to start all over again in another major."
She realizes that there are people far less fortunate than she, but she's still seriously bummed. "The other night, I was watching Pride and Prejudice, and there's this part about halfway through where they're playing the piano, and I just started crying. It was so sad."
Oddly enough, when I was watching it with my wife, I had the exact same experience, but with me, it was because I realized that we were still only halfway through the movie.
She's holding on to the small hope that taking some time off will make things better. But even if she can't play, she can still study and compose. "I have a lot of music in me," she says.
Let's hope that the university finds its heart and helps her bring that music out.