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‘It made me stronger’: EWU professor goes from foster care to Steinway Hall of Fame

EWU instructor/performer Jody Graves has been was honored in the Steinway Hall of Fame for being an awesome teacher and musician. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
EWU instructor/performer Jody Graves has been was honored in the Steinway Hall of Fame for being an awesome teacher and musician. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

When Jody Graves was a teenager, she was desperate for a piano.

Graves had been playing since she was 3, learning the basics from her mother on an upright Steinway in the family’s home.

After being placed in foster care as a teenager, she struggled to find someone who would let her use their instrument, so she wrote poetry and played guitar.

“That’s part of what made me who I am today,” she said. “It made me stronger and more determined.”

Graves became emancipated at 17, then lived in her car before moving in with her grandmother while attending Eastern Washington University. She said a caseworker once told her she would probably never make it to college.

She not only proved that caseworker wrong, she became a professor of piano studies at EWU in 2003.

And earlier this month, the girl who struggled to get her hands on a piano was inducted into the Steinway Hall of Fame.

“I thought, ‘I can figure this out,’ ” she said. “So I did.”

Graves, who has traveled the world as a cultural ambassador and still teaches at EWU, was nominated for induction in the hall of fame by the Steinway Piano Gallery of Spokane, where she teaches piano classes for other teachers.

To be eligible for the hall of fame, candidates must have taught for at least 10 years, must be pillars in their community and must exclusively use Steinway & Sons or Steinway-designed acoustic pianos when teaching.

Her fellow 42 inductees from across the United States and Canada included Gary Graffman, who instructed famed performers Lang Lang and Yuja Wang.

Graves said she was honored to be chosen.

“I’m kind of pretty humbled,” she said, “because I can name off at least 10 other people in this region who absolutely deserve this honor.”

Graves is a performer and competitive performance judge. This spring, she’ll play Rhapsody in Blue at the Bing Crosby theater. She has also performed at the local Steinway Gallery and the Cheney Food Bank.

She said students typically perform every month when the food bank hosts a meal, but recently the program was missing a performer and she filled in. She said she loved watching the calm that came over people while they were getting groceries or finishing their meals.

“The cool thing about music is that it’s universal,” she said. “It takes away the ragged edges sometimes, even for a minute, where if that’s what I do as a vocation, that’s the mission.”

Graves is the daughter of Robert Graves, the designer of the Madonna and Christ Child Christmas display, which currently adorns Cathedral Plaza in downtown Spokane.

She grew up in Wenatchee, listening to records, learning from her mother, who also played piano and sang, and playing by ear, a practice one of her early teachers said would ruin her technique.

“Playing by ear opened up a whole world for me,” Graves said. “I could play ‘Let Me Call You Sweetheart’ when Grandma would come over and make her feel better. Maybe she didn’t want to hear a Beethoven sonata.”

When she was traveling the world as a cultural ambassador, Graves said it wasn’t always the classics or well-known composers that touched peoples hearts. In 2006, she was a cultural ambassador for the U.S. State Department, traveling with former colleagues from the University of Montana in the Sapphire Trio. The group performed in Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. She said the song she remembers, that brought tears to the audience, was performing “Over the Rainbow.”

Graves said her difficult teen and college years have helped her relate to students and offer them hope when they are told they will never make money in music.

“If you do what you love, the money will come,” she said.

Music is a right, not a privilege, she said, and she has worked internationally and in the U.S. to provide musical education to children and to encourage those with even a limited musical background to live an artistic life and not to give up on their passion.

“It’s not about being perfect at something,” she said. “It’s about being present to yourself and to what it is that you love.”

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