In 2002, I had a three week concert tour of Europe. As I flew from one country to another, I was most inspired by the landscape of Norway. Powerful waterfalls, majestic fjords, and the northern lights created a stunning impression. Upon my return, I set to work to create a virtuoso piano piece that would be a musical postcard. I was planning to compete in local preliminaries to Miss Maryland, and the idea of creating a "Miss America worthy" piece was at the front of my mind. I had heard contestants chop up masterpieces by famous composers to fit within the strict time limit for the talent category and had often felt that this fragmentation resulted in a less than fulfilling performance. As I sat down at the piano to improvise the framework of the piece, the music came to me rather quickly and developed into a miniature that pays tribute to my classical background, and my favorite composers (Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Liszt). It has a solid melodic, harmonic, and formal structure that fits into the 90 second constraint. It requires focused artistry, physical choreography, and technical control, and when mastered it showcases the performer at her very best. I performed Northern Lights at Miss Maryland 2003 and 2005 (receiving preliminary talent awards). When I "retired" from participation in the MAO system, I assumed that it would never make it to the Miss America stage in Atlantic City.
Fast forward a few years: I finish my master's degree at Indiana University and return to Maryland to start my piano studio. In 2011 I receive a message from my former local Executive Director, Kevin Mohorn, explaining that he is now directing a teen program in Virginia and has a winner who wants to work on her talent as a pianist. I agree to meet her. Alyssa Howell and her mom, Cathy, drive up from their home in Leesburg, Virginia and I evaluate her experience and needs, and take a look at the piece they brought with them that she'd like to learn for the talent portion of the program. It's fun, and not too difficult - and yet a little beyond where she is at. Alyssa impresses me with her enthusiasm and genuine desire to learn. I ask her if wants to learn to play the piece, or to learn how to become a better pianist. The second option would require far more time and effort as I would incorporate theory, technical drills, and building up her repertoire little by little, but eventually result in her being able to play so much more. Alyssa chose the second option.
Within a few months, she made an incredible progress - especially impressive considering her juggling a busy schedule of school work, involvement in theatre, community service, and time with family and friends. She made the weekly commute (3 hours round trip) early on Saturday mornings and participated in my studio recitals. At the end of the year, I more or less expected she would say "thank you" and move on. She had learned enough to serve her well at the next pageant and perhaps even beyond that. But she didn't stop there. Alyssa continued with me for two more years - now adding festivals and competitions into the mix. She accepted constructive criticism and worked hard to implement suggestions. She had success in performances, and also "failures" - which in retrospect may have been her motivation to work even harder. In 2013 she signed up for participation in the summer music program I direct; a program that attracts outstanding young musicians from around the world. She fit right in; contributing to the program both musically and personally. Last year she returned as my assistant and her vibrant energy and creativity greatly enhanced the program.
Not too long ago, Alyssa asked if she could learn Northern Lights. I paused for a moment - taken by surprise - and then realized that she was ready. We dove into it, working one section at a time, analyzing the patterns, and creating technical exercises that would allow her to play every note with confidence. When she had learned the entire piece, we peeled back another layer (doing this again and again and again), working on interpretive details that would create a stunning performance. During her most recent lesson (via Skype), I so clearly saw the results of Alyssa's consistent work, diligence, and discipline. She played Northern Lights exactly as I had imagined it when I wrote it some thirteen years ago for performance on the Miss America stage.
On June 6, 2015 Alyssa was crowned Miss Nebraska. In September she will compete for the title of Miss Nebraska. To see my student and friend "reincarnate" this piece and make it hers gives me great joy. And to know that it's headed to Atlantic City for it's Miss America debut... is destiny!
Congratulations to Piano Prodigies alumna Alyssa Howell - and best of luck at Miss America!
Elizabeth Borowsky is a pianist, teacher, and composer. She is a Nationally Certified Teacher of Music in Piano (Music Teachers National Association).