Franklin Regional freshman at home on piano or on ice
By Les Harvath
Published: Friday, Feb. 24, 2012
When Franklin Regional freshman Emily Stoken was selected for a solo in the chorus' Valentine Cabaret, she asked her classmate and friend, Demi Schwartz, to accompany her on the piano.
Schwartz accepted and Stoken gave her the sheet music for the piece, "Someone Like You."
"Demi came to school the next day and had the song memorized," Stoken said. "I was totally amazed that she learned the song so quickly.
"Demi does so much for the chorus, helping us with warm-ups or helping us prepare for performances. I wanted it to be her to accompany me. Demi has a special place in my heart. She has a gift from God for the piano."
Because of a retinal disease that severely limits her vision, Schwartz must memorize her selections.
Lance Holton, coach/dance partner at Center Ice Arena in Delmont, recalls teaching and working with Schwartz when she was a figure skater several years ago.
"Demi was a quick learner, skating individually or in pairs," Holton said. "She was a beginning/intermediate skater and knew her way around the ice. She didn't let anything intimidate her, and her age was not a factor."
A chance encounter at her cousin's birthday party encouraged Schwartz to hang up her skates in favor of the piano.
"My cousin was playing 'Happy Birthday,' " Schwartz said, chuckling. "I had never taken a lesson and never played the piano before that day, but I watched her hands on the keys and listened to her and played it."
She enjoyed the piano so much that during the 2009-10 school year, as a middle school seventh-grader, Schwartz performed a solo piano recital, memorizing more than a dozen songs.
'Talented young lady'
Seventh-grade chorus teacher Denise McMullan, who teaches piano, calls Schwartz a "talented young lady."
"She amazed us in middle school with anything we gave her," McMullan said. "As choral accompanist, she followed our directions and our students followed her. Moving faster or slower was always an easy adjustment. An excellent student, Demi always gave one hundred percent. We included choreography with our music, and she was always right there."
Eighth-grade chorus teacher Lauren Bradley echoed the assessment.
"Demi is a dedicated, hard worker. We all loved Demi in middle school. She was always so excited about everything, so positive. I was amazed that she could learn music so fast, especially for someone her age. Give her a piece of music, she would take it home, and return to school the next day knowing the piece. She has great energy and is a great student in class."
Schwartz, 14, practices an hour every day on her Yamaha baby grand and has hour long lessons every week. She has composed three songs and garnered first-place honors in two competitions at Seton Hill University in Greensburg.
At her middle-school recital, Schwartz raised more than $3,000 in donations, which she presented to the University of Pennsylvania for retinal research.
Doctors have been unsuccessful in determining her specific retinal disease, Schwartz's mother, Michelle, explained. Schwartz also accepts donations for the Foundation Fighting Blindness.
"If no cure is discovered, it will eventually result in blindness," her mother said. "She can see people's figures, but not specific facial features. Demi has a good, positive attitude about this, and nothing holds Demi back. She has a positive attitude and will get frustrated sometimes, but she is learning to cope with everything."
A career in music
At Franklin Regional, Schwartz makes her way around the high school with few problems, "except on stairwells," she said with a smile. "I will not let this vision condition hold me back. I get around school fine."
Aides and friends lend a helping hand when necessary.
At the Ice Arena, Schwartz "could handle herself on skates," Holton said, "especially considering her vision issues; and considering her vision issues, she was more accomplished as a skater compared to others her age. She skated as well as other students in partner situations."
As demanding as figure skating would be to any novice, "once I got used to it and learned the routines, I knew where to go on the ice," Schwartz said. "I had lessons in individual and pairs skating and did what everyone else did. My partner, Lance, was a great help, and he always encouraged me."
Skating gave way to midget league and middle school cheerleading, where her friends helped with cheers and routines and, of course, the piano, where she memorized her way to her initial success.
Her piano instructor, John Kulik, who has been working with her since she was in seventh grade, said that he and "other piano teachers are in awe of what Demi can do. She may be vision-impaired, but she is quite a talented student. She cannot visually read music, and I teach her by rote. I tell her what to play, and she plays it, learning note by note.
"Some pieces are lengthy, and it may take two or three one-hour sessions to complete one piece. Demi has a natural talent for the piano and has advanced far regarding her repertoire and level of pieces. I am so proud of her."
Schwartz, who plans on a career in music and journalism, makes straight A's in school and is a member of the Franklin choir, women's choir and Freshman Singers and sang with the chorus at the Valentine Cabaret.
Participating in a Young Artists competition on Feb. 5, she played three pieces from memory.
"When something is a challenge, I want it more," she said. "I want to prove I can do something, with the piano or chorus or school or anything."
Franklin Regional Choral Director Kris Rust said, "Demi not only plays well, but she is able to listen to the choir and stay with them, not always an easy feat. Demi is an inspiration for all of us to overcome our limitations to do what we want to do in life."
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