As a partially deaf, self-taught pianist enrolled in college as a reluctant nurse-to-be, Rana Mahmood may have been an unlikely concert musician.
After graduating Friday from Spokane Falls Community College, where he wowed his teacher during an impromptu audition, he’ll head to Gonzaga University as a piano student with a scholarship and his eye on the stage.
“Anything can happen, I guess,” said Mahmood, 23, last week, sitting outside the auditorium in SFCC’s music building. “I didn’t think that three years ago I would be sitting here today. I’m a firm believer that music should be accessible to everyone. If you want to learn, you should be able to.”
Mahmood, a Spokane resident who’ll be among about 1,025 SFCC students to receive degrees this week, graduated from Ferris High School with no money for college. He sought help from the state’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation.
Part of the Department of Social and Health Services, the division’s job is to help people with disabilities get jobs. Aptitude testing pointed Mahmood toward nursing, training the division was willing to pay for, Mahmood said. Music, a field with uncertain job prospects, for a person with limited hearing? No.
He enrolled in prerequisites for nursing, but his heart wasn’t in it. He squeezed in a music theory class.
During a sight-singing exam, taken one-on-one in instructor Rosi Guerrero’s office, he told her he was working on some piano pieces. He didn’t have a teacher, he told her, but he could play some of Beethoven’s most difficult movements.
OK, the instructor said. Play. She stopped the exam and took him to her piano studio.
So Mahmood went big, choosing the most advanced piece he’d taught himself: the third movement of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata, a fast-tempo dazzler.
“I was blown away,” Guerrero said. “And I said to him, ‘Why aren’t you a music student? Why aren’t you enrolled in music?’ He says he loves piano, he loves to play, and it will always have to be something he’ll have to do on the side. I said, ‘Why?’ And then he told me he can’t hear.”
Completely deaf in his left ear, Mahmood has about 50 percent hearing loss in his right. A hearing aid boosts that ear to close to normal.
Guerrero, who’s taught at SFCC for 17 years, could tell Mahmood had received little formal piano training. He told her he’d played the viola in his middle school and high school orchestras, learning to read music through the alto clef and translating that knowledge to the piano’s treble and bass clefs. He’d listened to classical music on YouTube over and over, he told her, until he could play it back.
But she knew immediately Mahmood should study piano.
“He had that rawness about him that was just extraordinary,” Guerrero said. “And I’m always up for a challenge.”
Mahmood delivered several. Along with a lack of training and partial deafness, he had the money problem.
“It was just like, wow, where do we even begin here?” Guerrero said.
She directed Mahmood toward financial aid, through the community college, that would pay for music classes. As a work-study student, he tutored other music students. He won scholarship money through Community Colleges of Spokane.
And Guerrero put him to work on the basics: scales, arpeggios, posture.
Many self-taught musicians have to unlearn bad habits, Mahmood said.
“I think I got kind of lucky,” he said. “Intuitively, I learned a pretty decent way to play. It was quite unrefined, but as I’ve spent more time with Dr. Guerrero, she’s helped me with my technique a lot.
“By yourself, you can only learn so much.”
‘He took off’
When he was born, the first thing Mahmood’s mother noticed was how long his fingers were.
“I told his father, ‘He’s going to end up being a piano player, look at those fingers,’ ” Karoline Rima said. “It was just a joke at the time.”
Her son’s partial deafness, she believes, dates to his birth. She suspected he was hearing impaired when he was just a couple of months old, although he was not diagnosed until he was 5.
He also seemed born musical, Rima said. An active baby in the womb, she said, he only wiggled around more when she played Mozart in an effort to calm him. He banged on pots and pans as a toddler.
Rima, who split up with Mahmood’s father when the boy was 7, gave her son a two-octave keyboard when he was 9. He took it to his bedroom and spent whole days there, figuring it out. He taught himself using books and the Internet. Later, when he got a full-size electric keyboard, he’d mimic the prerecorded demo tracks. He found the sheet music to those pieces and related what he’d taught himself by ear to the marks on the paper.
“When he took off on that piano like he did, I couldn’t believe,” Rima said. “It was like, OK, he can barely even hear it.”
He tried piano lessons for a few months as a seventh-grader, Mahmood said, but it didn’t work out. His mom said his teacher wanted to focus on the basics, and he wanted to focus on the advanced.
Mahmood said it’s hard to tell how, or whether, his partial deafness affects him as a musician. He’s never known what it’s like to hear like other people. He knows that when he sings, he has a hard time matching other singers’ pitch and diction.
“I guess when a sense goes bad, the other senses, sometimes they get a little stronger,” he said. “I can feel sound vibrations, if that makes any sense. Every sound has a certain own frequency, and you can sort of feel the vibrations. That’s sometimes how I interact with it.”
Guerrero said Mahmood “plays loud.” They’ve worked a lot on that. To play softly, he has to be able to “hear the vibrations,” she said, and he has to “trust in what his fingers are doing and what others are saying to him in terms of the volume.”
A competitive field
Mahmood received a $26,000 scholarship to study at Gonzaga, where he said he’ll be taught by pianist Greg Presley. He’ll cover the rest with other financial aid. He said he’s looking forward to learning a new perspective on music.
Mahmood wants to be a concert pianist and earn a doctorate, like Guerrero, teaching music to college students.
It’s tough out there for musicians, Guerrero said. There’s no long line of pianist jobs awaiting graduates. But they face a diversity of career options, and scholarships are available for the best students.
She said she believes doors will open for Mahmood. His story, she said, is an example of what she likes about teaching at the community college. She gets to find the “gems,” she said, and help to polish them.
“I’ve taught over 2,000 students piano, and he’s one that I will never forget,” Guerrero said.
She stepped in to help him because she wanted him to have the opportunity to study in the field he felt passionate about, she said, despite the state program’s opinion that music education was too impractical for it to pay for.
“No, I don’t believe they should have said that,” Guerrero said. “But they’ve never heard him play.”