Suzanne Zahniser

I met Suzanne over coffee on March 20, 2017.  Her husband Tom told me about Suzanne’s decision to rekindle her piano playing after a 20-year hiatus. This eventually led to a full-on concert performance on September 17, 2016 – with four other performers - in front of 300 people. Here’s the mini-Suzanne story.

AiAA: Just to get started Suzanne. How old are you?

Suzanne: 63. I’ll be 64 in May.

AiAA: We’re going to be talking about the piano concert you gave on September 17, 2016 – but before we do that please give us a brief synopsis of your life leading up to that point.

I grew up in Texas. My mom is a piano player, and she used to play the piano when I went to bed at night. I thought it was the most beautiful thing in the world, so I asked her if I could have piano lessons. I was five, and because she was a piano player herself, she thought there was nothing weird about having a five year old take piano lessons. So I took piano lessons all the way through high school, and music was a huge part of my life.

I graduated from high school and went to Austin College, and of course I auditioned with the piano professor and I took piano lessons from him. At the end of my first year, he asked me to perform at the school convocation – as the opening act. I was playing a Bach English Suite. I had memorized it, and I was afraid. Stage fright is a very real thing.

Anyway, I forgot the ending of the piece, and I had to go back and repeat and try to run up to the end. I did that a couple of times and realized I wasn't going to be able to remember the end so I just made-up an ending and got off the stage. It was a horrible experience, and I was too young to understand that it was okay to make a mistake like that. So I just quit piano lessons, and stopped playing in any public way for the next 20 years.

AiAA: Tell us more about the non-piano playing part of your adult life.

Suzanne: Life happened. I went to law school, moved to Seattle, joined a large Seattle law firm and ended up as the chair of the firm’s tax practice. I eventually got married and had a family.

When my children reached school age I started playing the piano for their school functions and performances. As they got older I continued playing the piano for their choir groups and other forms of piano accompaniment.

In addition to the enjoyment I got out of it, I was starting to increase my piano skills again.

Meanwhile, all the time that I was going through my adult life, I had this idea of doing a concert. I thought about it a lot.  So I would be, for example, driving somewhere, and I'd start thinking about, "Oh I could do this piece." Then I'd play through that in my head a little bit, and then I'd think about another piece and I'd get to where I was going and I didn't remember even driving. It was so absorbing, and it was something that I couldn't stop thinking about.

About five years ago we purchased a baby grand piano, which was a beautiful instrument.  I found myself playing for hours every day, plus I now had two pianos which meant I could play and rehearse with my friends.  

After practicing for two years I went the the Concert Committee at our church and said “I’d like to perform a concert” and a date was selected that was another two years out. Now I was committed. I knew what I wanted to play and I chose my concert team. We began practicing in earnest.

AiAA: So you had it all in your head when you went to the committee?

Suzanne: Oh yes, and I had already asked my music partners, and they had already agreed to those dates. By this time, Jieun, the organist, had moved to Ft. Collins, Colorado. One of the reasons that I became more interested in doing the concert is because I wanted ways for us to continue making music together. So she was my main partner in this concert.

AiAA: So you plan the concert for two years, you go to the committee, you pick a date, it's two years out...if there is such a thing as average practice time per day, what are we talking about?

Suzanne: Probably three or four hours average. Then there would be days I would practice more, and days I would practice less. I couldn’t really do anything else. Our kids were out of the house by that time.  It’s just not something I could have done if I had any other commitments.

AiAA: Was there a specific time when this idea kind of hit you and you knew it was time to perform in a live concert?

Suzanne: I cannot think of a time in my adult life when I was not thinking about giving a performance.

AiAA: But it was not coming forward. In other words, it was an idea in your head to do a concert but something was holding you back.

Suzanne: Yes.

AiAA: And what was that?

Suzanne: There’s a short answer; it was lack of confidence to give a live performance. No question.

When I was in my forties, my aunt, who was one of my most beloved people, she was visiting. I must've been forty-five. Our kids were little. I can remember walking in the garden with her, and she was a person who always made me feel like I wanted to be my best self. I can remember saying to her, "You know, I'm going to have a concert. I'm going to give a concert when I'm fifty." That's the first time I remember saying it out loud, and she is the person I would've said it to.

Then I didn't give a concert when I was fifty, but what I did do was I played at the Youth Theater. That was a challenge to me. For a while, I thought that these settings in which I accompanied theater performances ... I thought that was going to do it for me. Then at some point I was ... I don't believe there was a specific day, but it got more and more real to me.

AiAA: In that pursuit of that idea, what was the toughest time for you?

Suzanne: Oh that's easy. The three months before the concert.

AiAA: Tell me more about that.

Suzanne in concert.

Suzanne in concert.

Suzanne: That was when it started getting real that I would be up there in front of all these people playing this music. Stage fright is a thing, that anxiety. I've had experiences where I was simply immobilized and not able to perform. So one of the reasons for practicing so much is...I didn't understand any of this when I started. I knew that I needed to practice until I could play it in my sleep, but I didn't understand why. The reason is because you're basically giving it over to your subconscious so that whatever distractions are out there, you can still do it.

As it came closer and closer to the time when the concert would really happen, the reality of what I had committed to do really set in. I became aware that I was doing something physically challenging, that I had to prepare my body for in the right way. I became aware that I had limited physical, emotional, and mental resources. I learned about self-care in a way that I never had before. I started to think of myself as a bucket...You can take some stuff out, but you have to keep putting in.

Two months before the concert, Tom’s Dad was coming over for dinner, and I was starting to feel like I needed to create the concert environment for myself. I said, "Tom, Dick after dinner let me play the concert for you." So they came in the living room, and I sat down and played the concert. They were a very friendly audience, but I was astounded at the difference when you have a person in there that you're really playing for.

AiAA: As opposed to just yourself?

Suzanne: Yeah. I thought, "Okay, I better do this every night." Then the next morning I woke up and I could not get out of bed because I had expended so many resources. That was when I learned that I couldn't play...I had thought I'll play the concert every night until I perform it. No, you won't do that because that takes too many resources. So there was this month basically of learning how to keep that bucket full enough, and yet practice enough. You could call it a dialogue or you can call it a conflict between the lawyer part of me that doesn't like to make mistakes and likes to just get stuff done, and then there was the subconscious or you could call it the creative or younger part of me that really is the one that knows how to make music. There was this conflict going on where part of me is saying, "Practice, practice, practice," and part of me is saying, "Hey, let up. Give me some room here."

Suzanne with her family.

Suzanne with her family.

AiAA: Did you ever consider aborting?

Suzanne: Everyone invited friends and family to the concert. Our kids had plane tickets. Jieun had a plane ticket. The concert committee was thrilled because we had been trying to build up our attendance at these concerts, and people in church had heard me playing so they were all going to come. So when you get right down to it, it was because I felt like I didn't have a choice at that point.

AiAA: What was one of the most gratifying aspects of doing this, for you?

Suzanne: Well that's pretty easy. So the most gratifying part was making music with these other people. You cannot make music with someone without loving them.  So you identify what you’re going to perform together, and then there's this long period of individual practice. We all had to prepare.

And then, close to the end when we started getting together again, then all thought of aborting came to an end because then you remember why you're doing it. You're in these unbelievably intimate relationships with these people. The music is starting to come together, and, of course, you never get together to make music without sitting there and talking. So there was this growing friendship with all these people that I was working with.

Then the night of the performance, the musicians gathered together beforehand, and I talked through the concert, what was going to happen for them. I spoke about each of them and what they meant to me. While we were playing there was a tremendous connection...the collaboration of it was definitely the most gratifying part. I enjoyed and feel good about the solos that I played, I do. Those were the hardest parts for me. If I did another concert, which I think I will, I would do solos again.

But that human bonding that happens when you do something like that together, it's amazing.  Close behind that, is the human bonding that happens between the performers and the audience. If the performers are, and we all were, we were playing from our hearts. It went straight from our hearts to theirs. In the room there was this energy. It wasn't the applause. It wasn't like, "Oh, the audience loves us." It was like this back and forth.

AiAA: Thanks for sharing this story. Do you have any favorite quote or something that is a Suzanne mantra?


Suzanne: During the time that I was getting ready for this concert, a photo came across my Facebook feed. It's this little girl and she's got pigtails and she's standing in the sprinkler in her swimsuit and she's laughing out loud, and it says, "Remember her? She's still in there. Let's go get her." (See photo).

AiAA: A good reminder for us all.  What about any advice you would give to a young adult today? A young adult meaning they're seventeen to twenty-five years old, someone in that range.

Suzanne: I would say “Just hang on; it’s going to get better.”  I think it's really hard at that age to keep your focus on your passion and your interest because you're so scared of about just making it. About just surviving, paying the rent, etc.

I would have to say “Stay connected with your passions and somehow pull those into life; that’s a better way to go.

AiAA: What is a significant, or it even could be a silly childhood memory?

Suzanne: I think sitting and playing piano duets with my mom. First of all, there were the nights where I would get in bed and I would hear her playing the piano and I would think that was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard. Then when I got older, she got this magazine every month that had piano music in the back. There were always some duets, and we would sit down at the piano and play the duets. That generally brought some hilarity with it because we couldn't play it or somebody would make a mistake or forget the F# or whatever.

AiAA: Your concert, not withstanding, what would you say is one of your prouder adult accomplishments?

Suzanne: Parenting.

AiAA: Yes. I get it. How about a value that you want to embody?

Suzanne: Love. It's something I've always known, it's something that I was fighting with myself about while getting the concert ready, and since our election I have known it even more: I want to be acting out of love and not fear.

Walter Boos