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A late starter at 17, area piano prodigy competes at a high level

Updated: 2013-07-09T02:10:53Z

By EDWARD HART

The Kansas City Star

— Sarah sits.

Wearing a floor-length magenta gown with a single strap on the right side, she takes her place at the grand piano.

In front of a crowd of 100, she cocks her head to the right, then up at the open lid of the Kawai piano, polished so bright she could see her reflection.

She is calm. Just like her piano teacher Steven Spooner says.

“When it comes to piano competitions, you cannot allow your self-worth to ride on a competition,” Spooner says. Because you’re going to win some that you don’t deserve to win, and you’re going to lose some that you don’t deserve to lose.

“So the focus isn’t on winning; it one presenting the music in the way you really want to and with the utmost conviction and sincerity. And if you happen to win —fantastic.”

Sarah Rasmussen, who lives in Platte City, was the only pianist from the area — or the Midwest — to reach the semifinals of the International Institute for Young Musicians International Piano Competition. And the 17-year-old was the only girl to make the finals.

The competition is among the most prestigious in the country for pre-college pianists. It certainly offers the heftiest prize money, according to its founder, Scott McBride Smith.

More than 80 pianists entered the competition with applications and audition tapes, some from as far away as China, Vietnam and Australia. But only 14 gained a spot in the semifinals. On July 6, after performing for a panel of five judges, the field was whittled to six finalists.

When Sarah found out she made it to the finals, she was shocked.

“Saturday wasn’t my best day,” she said Monday afternoon. “I hit some wrong notes, and all the other people were so good.”

But the finals would’ve seemed unattainable for the pianist Sarah was a year ago.

Music runs in Sarah’s veins. Her grandmother Kathleen Rasmussen trained to be an opera singer before she was married and worked as a music teacher and church choir director in the Kansas City area for more than 45 years.

From an early age, she remembers Sarah coming over while she gave the girl’s older siblings piano lessons.

“Every time she came over, she wanted to watch ‘Fantasia,’” Kathleen Rasmussen said. “She loved the music in it. It was obvious that she was this little girl with a different concept of music in her heart than most other kids had.”

This convinced her grandmother to start Sarah on piano lessons early. She even had to find special books that worked for teaching a four-year-old who couldn’t yet read.

“It wasn’t long until I realized that this little girl needed a professional teacher,” the grandmother said. “Not somebody who likes to play.”

So her grandmother turned to a friend who taught piano, Joyce Berg. Berg inherited a student with unusual finger dexterity and an advanced ability to read music.

But during the nine years that Sarah took lessons from Berg, Sarah’s level of committment to playing the piano wasn’t always there. She practiced maybe about five hours a week, certainly not enough for someone who aspired to be a concert pianist.

Her evolution began with a master lesson that Berg took her to in the fall of 2011offered by Spooner — her future teacher, a concert pianist and a member of the piano faculty at the University of Kansas.

“I remember correctly,” Spooner said, “I was really kind of tough on her.”

But he also told Berg that he thought Sarah had the potential to be a world-class pianist.

By early 2012, Spooner began regularly giving Sarah lessons. It was a late start for someone with her ambitions.

“Her parents came to me with certain goals, and I told her parents that some of those goals might be unattainable, because it’s so late,” Spooner says. “She’s definitely proven me wrong,”

Sarah’s blossomed under Spooner’s tutelage. He’s a demanding instructor. During their first lessons together, Sarah cried out of frustration, and she’s devoted much more of her time to practicing in a disciplined way.

“Now,” she said, “I practice as much in a day as I used to in a week.”

And, with Spooner’s encouragement, she’s been introduced to the world of higher-level competitions. In November, she won first place in the Music Teachers National Association pre-collegiate piano competition for the state of Missouri.

David and Gunda Hiebert, long-time patrons of the School of Music at the University of Kansas, have hosted 704 public recitals at their Lawrence home. Sarah has performed there four times.

“I’m impressed with her as a pianist,” Dave Hiebert said. “I’m also impressed with her as a person. She’s 17 years old, and mature beyond her age. She’s beautiful. And when she talks to you, she looks at you right in the eye.”

Her success should bode well for her plans. In the fall, she’ll begin the process of applying for the top music programs in the country. Her top choices are the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadlephia, the Peabody Conservatory of Music at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and the Juilliard School in New York.

“I think the parents came to me hoping for Sarah to enter into a leading school of music or conservatory by the time she finished high school,” Spooner said. “She will most certainly go almost wherever she wants to now.”

As she runs her hands along the keys at Monday’s finals, she also runs through centuries, from Baroque to modern, Bach to Kasputin. At times, she peers through the piano as if to fix her eyes on the opposite wall while her black ballet flat lilts against the piano’s pedals.

She strikes the final chord and raises her expressive hands in the air one last time. A full minute of applause breaks out. Her teachers, the Hieberts, many of the friends and families that helped her along the way are in the crowd, after all.

Half an hour later, she finds out she’s won second place.

With the competition behind her and her senior year of high school ahead, she has a trip to look forward to. In two weeks, she’ll go to Italy with her piano teacher.

It won’t be all play. She’ll go from her second-place performance in her first international competition Monday night in Lawrence to having her international debut in August at Music Fest Perugia in Italy.

“There she’ll have her debut with an orchestra,” Spooner said. “She’ll play the Mendelssohn Piano Concerto.”

The $5,000 she won Monday night will help pay for the trip.

To reach Edward Hart, call 816-234-4446 or send email to thart@kcstar.com.

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