Supposing a man tells you he loves to make people laugh, you could probably guess what careers he'd go about pursuing. Comedian would top the list, followed closely by clown or cartoonist. Comedic pianist probably wouldn't be near the top of that list, but then again, who even knew that was a career?
Thiago Nascimento, a seasoned classical pianist known for infusing comedy and theatricality into his oft-improvised performances, never planned this kind of career. When he was 13, Nascimento started teaching himself piano. A year later, he was admitted into Dallas’ renowned Booker T. Washington arts magnet high school, and his career as a classical pianist was off.
At an age when most young pianists were approaching veteran status, Nascimento was just beginning a two-decade stretch that made him a fixture of the Dallas arts and theater scenes. Two decades after he taught himself how to read music, Nascimento is still somewhat baffled by his success as a pianist and his meteoric rise from beginner to wunderkind.
“That shit was weird, man,” he says.
Nascimento has a hard time sitting still. While he talks about his career, his hobbies and his unabashed love for the Ghostbusters franchise (yes, even the 2016 reboot), the 35-year-old artist constantly fidgets and squirms. He strokes and scratches his gray-speckled beard, uses his hands to animate every statement and cycles through a full range of expressions and impressions, ranging from his friends to Keanu Reeves. According to friend and frequent collaborator Mark Landson, this is a typical sample of Nascimento's presence.
“I once saw him watching cartoons, and he was practicing the faces the cartoon characters would make,” Landson says.
Nascimento was born in Brazil and raised in Dallas. Even before he played piano, he was an entertainer. He would use his penchant for ridiculousness to make classmates laugh, earning status as class clown. His classmates’ favorite was “the ape,” a bit in which Nascimento would skip down the hallway, miming a gorilla. Piano was an extension of his urge to entertain and captivate an audience. He decided to start playing the instrument for fun and says that music later became a much-needed outlet.
“The first time I played in front of people, everyone thought it was a joke,” Nascimento recalls.
It was the eighth-grade talent show, and when the kid best known for his gorilla impression sat behind the piano, the chuckling began. Everyone expected a humorous bit. Instead, they got Chopin. Nascimento had spent three months teaching himself how to play the Polish composer’s “Minute Waltz,” using video demos and a light-up keyboard.
“After the show, teachers and random students came up to me and just said, ‘Oh my God, you must’ve been studying for years. Who are you, what are you?’” Nascimento recalls.
He began studying with a teacher shortly after his Chopin show, and his admission to Booker T. Washington was followed by studies at the Peabody Conservatory and Southern Methodist University. In each of those schools, he was surrounded by students who had been studying since age 6. Nascimento’s status as a late bloomer led to labels like “prodigy,” a word he hates to this day.
“That word puts a divider between me and others; it makes them think I’m made of something others are not," he says. "It feels distancing, and I like to connect with people. That’s what music does to me.”
Nascimento graduated from SMU in 2008 and gigged at various venues around Dallas while working other jobs. As he tried to get his musical career off the ground, his personal life was in shambles. He was married to his longtime partner, a woman he had known for a decade, but the marriage was falling apart.
“We spent two and a half years fighting, and big mistakes were made on both sides," he says. "One day, we’re fighting over the phone and she says, ‘Well, I’ve already contacted an attorney,’ and hangs up.”
The marriage officially ended on June 22, 2010, the day Nascimento cites as the start of his “new life.”
“As weird as it sounds, all of this would have never happened had it not been for my divorce," Nascimento says. "In the process of moving on, I dove into my career.”
By “all of this,” the artist means his career as one of Dallas’ most revered and unconventional pianists. Nascimento began composing and has written and starred in various productions at the Pocket Sandwich and Ochre House theaters. He has helped Landson launch Open Classical, an organization presenting events that combine classical music with comedy and other kinds of audience engagement. Every Tuesday at Buzzbrews, Nascimento performs in the Open Classical event Classical Open Mic, where he met Landson eight years ago.
“Thiago is the ultimate performer, because his looks, his reactions and the way he speaks with the piano is ridiculous,” Landson says. “He becomes the show, and he thrives off of having someone to react to.”
Landson compares Nascimento to Harpo Marx and Victor Borge, a pianist famous for his blend of music and comedy. And it's a fair comparison: When the audience expects one thing, Nascimento veers left.
Singer-songwriter Rahim Quazi, another Open Classical collaborator, has a word for that kind of artist: "rulebreaker."
“When you’re a trained classical pianist, you know the rules,” Quazi says. “You know this chord is supposed to follow this chord. But Thiago doesn’t play or write like that.”
Whether it’s following one chord with something unexpected, or making farcical vaudevillian faces mid-show, Nascimento is still the class clown traipsing down the hallway, ape-style. Quazi admires the tireless energy his friend brings to every performance.
“You can’t fake Chopin. You can’t fake Debussy," he says, "I don’t think you can play an instrument at that high of a level and not have a heart that matches it. Thiago puts heart and soul into it — his music, his relationships, everything.”
That heart and soul spill onto Nascimento's other interests, and he has his own Etsy shop where he sells replicas of famous movie props like Han Solo’s blaster or Star Lord’s helmet. Three years ago, while dark chauvinist corners of the internet were ablaze with hatred stemming from an all-female cast of the Ghostbusters reboot, Nascimento was busy quibbling over the movie’s cavalier disregard for how a proton blaster is supposed to look. Nevertheless, he saw the movie 13 times in the theater, and loved it.
“I was really into comic books and movies as a kid,” he remembers. “They took me to fantasy lands, where I could be away for a little bit, and I was always fascinated by the idea that someone was coming to save me. After a while, I started to create my own outlets. ”
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Nascimento doesn’t delve too deep into his childhood, but describes it as containing “a lot of trauma.”
“I don’t like to say music was my escape, because to me that sounds negative," Nascimento says. "But it’s my meditation, my therapy, it’s how I’ve gotten better. And if I can give that to someone else, then I’ve done my job.”
Despite how different they seem on the surface, Nascimento insists that piano and comedy are not that different.
“When you make someone smile or laugh, a little bit of a window opens up into who they are," he says. "Everything’s going to be OK when you’re smiling or laughing.”