At 41, classical pianist Eva Brandys just released her first EP to tell the story of her life. It’s an EP that almost never happened, for many reasons, but now she hopes to create many more songs.
Brandys, who grew up in communist-era Poland, started playing piano at 8 years old. When her parents realized she was serious about it, they helped her apply to music school. Even auditioning was a difficult process, Brandys remembers, but the school was even worse from the inside.
“They want to make sure you’re the best, that you represent Poland and the whole communist system,” she says. “When it comes to music, they always wanted to create the next Chopin, you know? They want another great composer to represent the country. So our training in arts and music was always very strenuous. It was kind of like a military regime.”
Her parents applied to purchase a piano so she could practice at home. Because everything was rationed, including musical instruments, her father had to go to Warsaw to put their name on a waiting list. It took five years for Brandys to receive a piano, which was expensive, and the craftsmanship was shoddy.
“Eventually when they call you or send you a notification that your piano is ready for pick-up, you better have the money for that piano,” she explains. “It was relatively expensive, knowing the value of the currency at that time, so I feel like my parents really sacrificed a lot for me.”
Her parents still have the piano in Poland. “It’s hard to part with it because there’s so much emotional and historical attachment to it. And now when I go back, it is such a bad piano,” she says and laughs. But it was better than the piano she inherited from her grandparents, which had great bones but half the keys didn’t work. “It was in really bad condition. In the middle, the essential part of the piano, only every other key played.”
Brandys did what she could. “From the very beginning I had to practice a lot,” she says. “I very quickly realized that it wasn’t for fun. It was serious.” Even at a young age, she was determined, although looking back she says it was for a bad reason. “Honestly, what motivated me was fear because my teacher hit me,” she admits.
“She hit my fingers all the time with her keychain and slapped my hands and yelled. Oh my gosh, she would yell and swear at me. I was a sensitive kid. I had to learn to be tough. I hated it so much, but it was an embarrassment to be kicked out of a school like that, once you got in, because not very many kids got in there. I would cry every day after class.” She finally told her parents, and they were able to go to the head of the school and bribe him to let Brandys switch teachers.
“I was lucky because eventually I was transferred and I got a really amazing teacher,” she says. “I kept in touch with her for many, many years. She completely inspired me. That encouraged me to practice out of respect for her because I didn’t want to disappoint her.”
Then when she got to high school, she once again found herself under abusive leadership, and unfortunately this time there was nothing she could do to change her situation. “There was no way out,” she says. “He was the head of the music department. You had to study with him. He was the best. It took me years to recover, to even start believing in myself again as a piano player.” By the time she finished high school, she was ready to quit music completely.
“I was done with it,” she says. “I wanted to change majors. I wanted to take linguistics and study different languages. I just wanted to do anything except study music. I’d had enough.” But changing majors was easier said than done. Communism in Poland ended around the time she graduated from high school, so there was an influx of western and European colleges that held auditions for talent. She auditioned for several and was accepted to Dallas Baptist University on a full scholarship.
She didn’t know any English. She had to have the terms of the scholarship translated in order to prepare for her trip overseas. It was her first airplane ride, and it brought her to Dallas. She arrived with two suitcases and $100 cash, half of which she spent on a shuttle to the university. She was almost completely cut off from her family. She occasionally made brief calls to her parents on a landline and every week she wrote them a letter. Looking back, even she’s a little shocked by her gumption to move halfway across the globe.
“I honestly don’t know why I would come here and not be afraid, knowing that I couldn’t speak English,” she muses. “I was afraid, but I was really excited and that’s why I was able to handle all that.” She had to maintain a high GPA in order to keep her scholarship, so she threw herself into learning English and her music studies, but it took her a while to adjust to the culture shock. She especially was surprised when her professors praised her work. “I could not accept that,” she says. “I thought they were lying, or maybe just being polite. It didn’t hit my ears at all, or register.”
After graduating from Dallas Baptist University, she went to Southern Methodist University to pursue her master's. She auditioned for another scholarship, knowing she couldn’t afford to attend the school without funds. She auditioned with people she felt were much more qualified than she was, so she was surprised when she once again received a full scholarship.
“That was a wonderful experience,” she says. “SMU opens all the doors in Dallas and helps to get you a job, get you connected.” That was key because as soon as she graduated she no longer had a student visa. She had to get a work visa so she could work while she applied for her green card, which took several years. “Time flies when you’re up against so many obstacles,” she says. “There’s no dull moment in my life.”
She taught several students independently and then in 2010 she founded Park Cities School of Music in Dallas and hired several other music teachers to help her manage her ever-growing pool of students. Earlier this year, she partnered up with her friend Ewa Korzeniowska (also pronounced “Eva”) to open the Lakewood Conservatory of Fine Arts.
As a teacher, Brandys has a very different philosophy about teaching than she experienced in Poland. “I would not want any child to go through my way of education,” she insists. “In a way I’m thankful because I think it made me a deeper person, but I don’t know if every child is able to handle something like that. The system, it either makes you or breaks you. Maybe I’m lucky that it didn’t completely break me, but if I hadn’t come to the United States I never would have played piano again. I was just so done with it.”
She believes there are better ways to motivate students. “Just making the kids fall in love with what they’re doing,” she says, “because I don’t think you have to be abusive to encourage a child to practice for hours a day.” It has taken her years to undo the damage that was done to her psyche, but she eventually learned to trust her musical instincts and even fall in love with playing piano again. Her EP, simply called Eva, was produced as a way for her to process her life journey.
Her knack for composing has been brewing inside her for a long time. Friends sometimes asked her to write songs for their weddings. Although they loved the songs she composed for their special day, Brandys wasn’t satisfied.
“I tried to kill it, to keep it from coming out of me,” she says. “I never kept up with that part of my creativity. It’s too closely connected to the past. I thought it wasn’t good enough. I’m very critical toward myself and what I’d created. That’s the old system coming out. I had to be the best. I couldn’t just have fun and enjoy myself.”
She probably never would have recorded an EP without encouragement (and even a deadline) from her business partner, Korzeniowska. Brandys played an original piece for Korzeniowska one night, and Korzeniowska insisted she make more. Korzeniowska made Brandys play the song for other people, who also encouraged Brandys to compose more music. Last year Korzeniowska told her she wanted Brandys to record several songs and release an album by the end of 2016.
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“I told her, ‘[Piano] is your first and last love,’” Korzeniowska recalls. “I said, ‘This is your best friend and worst enemy, but you will always love it. This is something that no matter how much you sometimes hate the instrument, you will always love it because through this instrument you will be able to express yourself.’ And that’s what happened.”
For the first time Brandys tapped into her emotions and put those emotions into her songs. She’s excited about this step in her journey and wants to create more music.
“It comes from my heart,” she says. “I hope it touches people, but when I write my music I am touched. It stirs emotions in me. They come from somewhere really deep inside me, and if it touches one person then it’s worth it.”
Eva Brandys’ 4-song EP, Eva, is available on iTunes.