By Paul Freeman [July 2012 Interview]

Pianist/vocalist Dena DeRose appreciates every moment she’s able to touch audiences by tickling the ivories.

About 20 years ago, then studying classical piano at college, DeRose found herself unable to play. Carpal tunnel syndrome and arthritis robbed her right hand of all functionality. It took a couple of surgeries and a few years, as well as a lot of pain and suffering, before she could perform on the keyboard. In the meantime, however, she discovered her gift for vocalizing.

“Sometimes I think, ‘Why did I have the hand problems?’ Well, maybe there were reasons,” DeRose says. “The universe works in very weird ways sometimes. As depressed as I was, it did lead to opportunities. It taught me a lot about positivity and energy and just keeping a forward motion, not looking back too much. I’m one to go with the flow in life.”

The flow recently carried her back to Stanford University. She has taught workshops there and, for the 16th year, played the Jazz Festival. She was particularly excited about this appearance, because it was the first to which she was been able to bring the rest of her trio - drummer Matt Wilson and bassist Martin Wind. They were joined by trumpeter Terrell Stafford.

DeRose, who is the Vocal Professor and Head of Jazz Vocals at the University of Music and Dramatic Arts in Graz, Austria, gains satisfaction from both teaching and performing. “For me, it’s a great balance. You get a different kind of energy from teaching than you do from performing. I don’t think I would teach, if I didn’t perform. I want to be able to bring the experience to the students. Sharing experiences is how I teach.”

She grew up in Binghamton, New York. When she was two, her uncle gave DeRose a little chord organ and her mother discovered her plunking out melodies the toddler had heard at church. At three, DeRose began piano lessons.

DeRose explored all styles. At 18, hit the road with a Top 40 band and later got into fusion. But classical was still the main focus for her as a pianist. At 21, she tapped into her great musical passion, straight-ahead jazz. But then her crippling hand issues brought her piano career to a screeching halt. “I was practicing all the time and gigging. I think I just overdid it,” she says.

After all that exhaustive work, from the age of three, it was devastating to have her dreams shattered.

“I was a mess. I was drinking myself to oblivion. I was depressed to a point where I would go a week without eating and then I would overeat. I was so out of balance. I thought my life was over, because I really didn’t want to do anything else in life. It was a really, really tough time.”

DeRose tried all sorts of alternative remedies, including acupuncture and Chinese herbs, as well as Western medicine, but nothing worked. She met a guitarist with hand woes who gave her the name of a specialist. “His whole approach and way of dealing with someone in my condition was so incredible. He was so uplifting, and so sure that he could make it better, that I totally turned around,” DeRose says.

After the cast was removed following her final surgery, the doctor said, ‘Your therapy is to play.’ “I just broke down crying and hugging him. I was so happy. So I began playing again. I had so much work to do, just to get the muscles back. My right hand was half the size of my left hand after having the cast on for eight weeks and not using it to do anything, because it was too painful.”

But the emotional pain had already been eased by vocalizing. “About a year into not playing and hanging out in bars and jazz clubs in my hometown, my jazz piano teacher was playing one night and asked me to come up and sing. I said, ‘I don’t sing jazz. I don’t know any words.’ I knew melodies a little bit. He goes, ‘We’ve got a Real Book [with lyrics] right here. Come on, you can do it.’

“So I sang, with the Real Book in one hand and a mic in the other. And people clapped and my teacher said, ‘Sing another one!’ And when I finished, I sat down at the bar and thought, ‘Wow! I feel so great.’ That was another turning point, being able to be part of the music again. And my friends, my family, my jazz family, were so supportive. And it gave me an opportunity to stay in the jazz community by singing. I started taking vocal lessons, technique with an opera singer. And then I started booking myself with my jazz piano teacher’s trio around town, just standing and singing, getting some repertoire together. And after that, it just flowed.”

After the operation was finished, DeRose sat at the piano and sang the same tunes. “I didn’t think about it. It just sort of happened. I guess I was lucky to have had the opportunity to learn first by standing and singing and not having to sit at the piano. When it came time to take the two together, of course it was not easy, but it wasn’t as hard as it is for some of the students I see.”

It took a year for her right hand to be 100 percent. But developing her vocal skills enhanced her piano playing.

“Knowing not only the melodies, but the words, completely changed my playing. My phrasing, my melodic lines and solos were stronger. And my left hand was a lot stronger, because during that time, I had continued to practice with my left hand.”

Eventually, DeRose learned to scat. “I had to work at that. I didn’t grow up doing tongue-twisters very well,” she says, laughing. “And I still can’t. So it took time. I have to say, teaching it, is what taught me. Having to teach it, I had to really dive in and do it.”

When her hand had healed, she landed a gig at a Holiday Inn and performed four nights a week for two years, playing and singing, before moving, in 1991, to New York City.

“My mom told me that, when I was four years old, people would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up and I would say, ‘I want to be a piano player in New York.’ I had that vision always.”

In Manhattan, she roamed around with a backpack, looking for venues that had a piano. She would play 10 gigs a week - brunches, cocktail hours, nighttime gigs and jam sessions - for 10 years. DeRose’s stature rose, as she earned rave reviews for performances and albums.

Six years ago, accepted a professorship and moved to Austria. She had already been performing extensively in Europe, so acclimating came quickly. “The school actually encourages us to get out gigging, which is great. So I’m teaching two-and-a-half hours a week and the rest of the time, I’m touring.”

Now with her partner for three-and-a-half years, DeRose has found balance in her life. She has a new solo recording, “Live in Belgium,” and is about to record an album of contemporary standards, rather than the originals and Great American Songbook material fans are accustomed to hearing from her.

“My goal was always to play with musicians that were better than me and to have fun, while learning. And that’s what I try to convey to my students.

“It’s been a slow, uphill climb, compared to a Diana Krall or Patricia Barber, these people that get the break on a high level. For me, the key is to keep working, growing and learning. I just feel very fortunate and thankful that I’m able to have a life in music, after all the hard times I had in the past. But again, I try not to look back. I just keep looking forward.”

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