Life has thrown a lot of hard reality at her, chiefly the blindness that has darkened her world since she was an infant. But in her bedroom in her family's modest
Those fingers moved like lightning across the board, sometimes in a blur, other times in fits or spurts, or in great leaps and bounds to chase down the right note like a big cat pouncing on prey. The piano shook in the manic frenzy as her mother, Jeanie, grabbed one end to steady it, but the sound was beautiful and brilliant.
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This was no finger novice's search and destroy mission, nor a drunken saloon piano ramble. The 20-year-old phenom was playing a cadenza from Sergei Rachmaninoff's legendary Piano Concerto No. 3. The "Rach 3," as it's called in classical slang, is renowned as being one of the most technically difficult piano pieces, but Rachel dispatched the cadenza and its ferocious climaxes with no bumps. "It's a hard piece," she had begrudgingly allowed earlier.
"Her hands are absolutely amazing," said
It was one of the first things he noticed about her after seeing her play for the first time in January at Squashed Grapes on
Those two life forces will collide Sunday night at Libbey Bowl in
"We hope to fill the bowl with fans," he said. "It may end up being the climax of the film."
DeStefano hopes to get the film, titled "
He wants to recapture that original "wow" moment from January.
"It was sort of jaw-dropping," he recalled. "Even now, it's something I can't quite verbalize."
There's a lot of that going around.
"She plays a lot with guys who are 20 or 30 years older than she is," DeStefano observed, "and they are all gobsmacked by her talent and her musical ear."
'Rach' and roll
Flowers, who's lived in
No other musicians, just her. She'll have none of that butterflies talk.
"I don't get nervous," she averred. "Live, I hear the crowd, I can feel the energy."
Her mother, Jeanie, agreed, adding, "With other people, it scares them, but she just feeds off it."
Rachel said she'll play
She's a huge prog rock fan, an extended jam style of music popular in the 1960s-'70s that featured keyboards and guitars in long, dense instrumental sonic stews wrapped in musical themes. She likes Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd and Emerson, Lake and Palmer.
With that, she launched into a bridge suite from Emerson's "High Level Fugue" -- a lively, jaunty piece that's also on Sunday night's playlist.
Her mother looked up and smiled, adding, "She just plays all the time -- it's what she does." Joked Rachel, "I also eat and sleep."
The concert also will feature several of her original compositions. She has more than 50 in all; some are fully realized, some she's still dabbling with in development.
"Sometimes, I hear them in dreams," Rachel said. "It's hard to explain."
She's hardly in the minority there -- who can fully explain that bizarre world?
"Her artistic karma comes from a strange place," filmmaker DeStefano offered, "but we are not going to try to explain the forensics of that in the film. We're going to leave that as a thing of mystery."
Someday, Rachel would love to hear her ideas played with a full-on 70-piece orchestra -- "I want to compose all kinds of stuff."
She was asked about the attraction of music, got quiet for a moment and said, "It's the first thing I remember hearing."
A little star twinkles
It was her mom and dad, Dan, singing "Summertime," the old
Rachel spent the first three months of her life at
In one of life's cruelties, just before she was discharged she was diagnosed with retinopathy of prematurity, or ROP, a disorder that can lead to lifelong blindness. It occurs when abnormal blood vessels grow and spread throughout the retina, the tissue that lines the back of the eye.
These abnormal vessels can leak, scar the retina and pull it out of position, causing a retinal detachment that can lead to blindness, the
Despite many operations, Rachel was left blind for life. Her parents, both musicians, found it difficult to interact with their infant daughter, save for music. They found it calmed and soothed Rachel.
Something kicked in. By age 2, Rachel was playing piano. When Jeanie showed her how to play "Twinkle,
Her mother has called Rachel's musical talents a gift from God.
At age 4, she was a student at the
She added flute to her piano repertoire in middle school, and played with the
Rachel still wings it; she'll listen to original and bootleg recordings of an ELP song, say, and "I'll just figure it out, and I'll improvise in sections." She claims she can distinguish between the sound of a Nord or Steinway or BÖsendorfer piano, just from one playing.
The film's subject doesn't mind her star turn.
"It's pretty exciting," Rachel said before adding with a laugh, "He's got a ton of stuff."
Thus far, DeStefano and crew have filmed Rachel on 18 days. They shot her playing gigs, at home and at the
A cooking class drew a mild complaint from Rachel, who said, "That one's a little hard for me. There's a lot of people in it, so it's not one on one."
She graduated from
"She has all this talent, but she has obstacles, too," DeStefano said. "She's like a child in an adult's world, bringing us joy."
Rachel allowed that she sometimes gets into little tiffs with her 13-year-old brother, Vaughan, who will be in eighth grade this fall at
Rachel wows Herbie
Rachel has hobnobbed with some big names. At age 9, she played for
She also played for and met
"There's one part of it that no one gets right," Rachel recalled, "and
High praise, indeed. "Oh yeah," Rachel cooed with a smile, delighted at the memory. To top it off, Hancock thought she was a student at the institute.
With that, she launched into "Dolphin Dance," after plopping a disc into a computer and waiting for it to download. She can now reprogram keyboards by herself without help from a sighted person, she explained.
It's a pretty-sounding piece, softer and more contemplative than the "Rach 3."
Asked if she nailed "Dolphin Dance," Rachel laughed, smiled, spun in her chair and wiggled her arms excitedly, as if they were wet spaghetti noodles.
Nothing could touch her in that moment. She's taking up guitar; who knows where that will lead, what other great fields of imagination await.
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