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Last modified: Thursday, February 27, 2003

IUB pianist wins Young Soloists Award

Visually impaired student earns chance to perform at Kennedy Center

On the second floor of the Indiana University School of Music's Merrill Hall, in a room small enough to be a clothes closet, are a well-worn piano, a tiny table, three chairs and a small, square window that lets in just enough natural light that there is no need for an overhead lamp. For Janet Ross, one of two nationwide winners of the 2003 VSA arts Panasonic Young Soloists Award, this room is a second home, an office, a classroom and a practice room.

But she can barely see it.

Ross was born with cataracts and later developed glaucoma, which left her with little vision. She is considered legally blind, although she effortlessly navigates the halls of the School of Music as a graduate student in piano performance with Professor Karen Shaw. The VSA honor is awarded to musicians under the age of 25 with disabilities.

As part of the award, Ross will perform for 15 to 20 minutes in a recital on May 21 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. The award also includes a $5,000 scholarship from Panasonic Corp.

When Ross applied for the award, she was required to send in recordings of three contrasting works from three different periods. She chose pieces from her senior- and junior-year recitals that she felt represented her abilities, and her choices paid off.

In preparation for the award recital, she will add an extra hour to her daily piano practice.

"A recital isn't something you can cram for," she said. "The week before a recital, you should pretty much be ready."

Ross is unsure which pieces she will play at the Kennedy Center, but she has submitted several options to the awards committee.

"My favorite pieces to play are slow and beautiful, but 15 to 20 minutes of slow and beautiful might put everybody to sleep," she said. "I'm trying to find a balance between playing Chopin's Concerto and a slow Brahms piece."

Because of her visual impairment, Ross has an unorthodox method of learning the music. She is able to read only one line of music at a time, with the music sheet very close to her face. She must memorize the notes one hand at a time before she can play the piece -- a process that can be frustrating and time-consuming. Yet she stays positive about the learning process.

"I've learned to rely on my tactile sense of the keyboard more than other people do," she said. "I just have to come up with different ways to figure things out."

Ross began playing piano at age 6, after a short stint with the violin.

"Playing piano was just something that I did," she said. "I really enjoyed it, I liked my teacher and I didn't mind practicing. It became a big part of my life very quickly."

And a big part it is. Ross regularly practices piano for four hours a day -- in addition to teaching piano lessons, accompanying the IU Children's Choir, working in the School of Music's Office of Admission and Financial Aid, and serving as an associate instructor in the Piano Department. She said her shortest days at the School of Music are usually 10 hours.

A native of Amherst, Mass., Ross graduated from IU in May 2002 with a 3.9 GPA and a triple major in piano performance, flute performance and children's music pedagogy.

Because of her visual impairment, she is realistic about her future as a pianist. She is not sure where music will take her, but she is positive that the piano will be a big part of her future.

"The only thing I know is that I don't want one job to define me," she said. "I need to play, to perform for myself, even if it is not how I am going to make my living. I know I am always going to do it, because it's what makes me happy."

Hometown information: Janet Ross, Amherst, Mass.