When I was a twenty-two year old classical piano student, I moved from my home in Colorado to New York City to try and get into graduate school at The Manhattan School of Music. I had already auditioned once but was not accepted. But my Colorado family encouraged me to take a chance and move to New York and audition again. I did.
Years later, still living in New York and working as an actor, singer and pianist, I started reminiscing about my first year in New York and all of the crazy things that happened. There were, in particular, a couple of stories that I remembered that seemed so unique that I felt compelled to write them down. I thought perhaps others could identify with my stories and my struggles with negative demons that kept yapping away in my ear as I played the piano.
Simultaneously, I was seeing other people’s solo shows and saw classical pianist and actor Hershey Felder’s brilliant solo show about the life of Leonard Bernstein. He impersonates the famous composer and conductor and tells Bernstein’s life story from childhood until death incorporating classical piano playing throughout. At that moment I realized I had to write a solo show and tell my classical piano story!
Why is it important for me to do this show now?
I just personally felt this strong need to tell my story. It was inside of me and dying to come out. And in writing my first few anecdotes, I delved deeper into my own life, my musical history, with its ups and downs, accomplishments and disappointments and found catharsis and clarity about myself. It is a story of creative expression and the external and self-inflicted obstacles that tried to derail me along the way. But, ultimately, I conquered my demons. My show is a story of hope and the rewards of determination!
What story am I telling in the performance?
I start my story as it really happened. I am a seven year old Colorado girl who serendipitously comes across a New Yorker magazine in the pediatrician’s waiting room. In it I see listings for all kinds of theatrical performances in New York and instantly I am captivated by the cultural offerings of New York. The show continues with stories of my childhood piano lessons which lead to becoming a piano major in college where I studied with a teacher from New York. As I get more involved in music and piano playing, the stakes get more important and I start having trouble memorizing my music, feel I am not enough and that no one wants to listen to me. None the less, I did graduate with a piano degree and wanted to go to graduate school in New York City. I had never been to New York, barely knew anything about it, but I knew I had to go there. So I did. And along the way, I endured sweltering practice rooms, music-hating neighbors, condescending teachers and a falling piano. And I learned resilience and determination.
Throughout I demonstrate my own musical sensitivity and formidable technique performing live classical piano music, featuring Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Debussy and Schubert.
What have I been learning about myself?
I’ve learned how positive and resilient I am. I’ve learned that I am funny. I’ve learned that I am a writer and have a quirky way of describing the events in my life. I’ve learned that even though I continue to work on overcoming my self-sabotaging demons, I did overcome them in the course of my story and was able to accomplish my goal of getting into graduate school. So that I know that hope and possibility are always available to me. Sometimes one forgets that and instead gets bogged down by negative thoughts and feelings.
Who would I thank in my Tony speech?
I would definitely thank my parents for being creative, supportive and loving. I’d thank my long deceased grandparents for encouraging my musical journey, Austin Pendleton for challenging me to start writing my show, David Meyer for reading my script and offering insightful suggestions to deepen the conflicts which arise in my tale, Page Clements for directing me and helping shape my show, and finally my husband, David Simonoff, who has seen many performances of my show and has had to listen to me practice running the show at home over and over and over again and says never grows tired of hearing and seeing it.
When my performance is over, what do I want the audience feeling or thinking about?
When I wrote my show, I had no idea what my audience would feel and think about it. So I was very surprised when so many people wrote to me afterwards, telling me that Velvet Determination allowed them to think about their own creative journeys, their own moment of epiphany when they knew they were no longer children under their parents, but adults responsible for their own actions. And of course, they told me about their own childhood piano lessons full of good and bad experiences and even some who had teachers who terrorized them. So my show seems to allow my audience to reflect on their own creative lives and journeys and overcoming personal obstacles. That makes me really happy.
Cynthia Shaw, pianist, singer and actor, lives in Brooklyn, NY. She was born and raised in Pueblo, Colorado and moved to New York to attend the esteemed Manhattan School of Music. Since graduating, she has dedicated her life to music and performance. She has musical directed over 30 regional and off-Broadway shows and particularly specialized in accompanying singers, instrumentalists and choirs. CAREER HIGHLIGHTS include: backup vocals for Paul McCartney (Carnegie Hall) and Björk (Riverside Church). Singing with the New York Philharmonic when they won three Grammy Awards and playing piano for Garrison Keillor and The Prairie Home Companion at Town Hall and on NPR. Cynthia is also an accomplished actor. Favorite theatre roles: Mrs. Winemiller (Summer & Smoke, Terry Schreiber, director), Liz Fuller (Me and Jezebel, Kentucky Repertory Theatre), Arkadina and Ranevskaya (Mr. Chekov and Mr. Porter, Medicine Show Theatre) and many other Off-Broadway theatres in New York. Her film work has been presented at Cannes Festival Corner, The Film Society of Lincoln Center, The Soho International Film Festival and The Big Apple Film Festival, to name a few. Her one woman show, Velvet Determination, won 2018 “Best Festival Debut” at NYC’s United Solo Festival and 2019 “Best Solo Show” at The Pittsburgh Fringe festival. www.cynthiashaw.us
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