A brave soul in a sun dress stood, gripping Chopin's Etude Op. 25, No. 1, and sat down at the piano. She rubbed her hands together and cupped them over her face for one last moment of calm.
Maya Garcia pressed her fingers to the keys and began.
In the back of the intimate recital hall at the University of South Florida, pianist Rebecca Penneys studied Garcia, listening for opportunities to illuminate weaknesses, to make her better.
"If you don't explore, in the teaching situation, what you have trouble with," Penneys said, "God help you when you get on stage."
Penneys, 66, has played concert piano in Asia, Australia, New Zealand, South America, Europe, Israel, Canada. At the Eastman School of Music in New York, she has led countless students on to illustrious careers. She holds the coveted title of Steinway Artist, along with names like Billy Joel and Judy Collins.
And like so many others, her journey has led to Florida.
Monday marked the second day of the Rebecca Penneys Piano Festival at USF, a two-week program funded by donors in which 31 advanced students from around the world get lessons without paying tuition. The public is welcome to come, to sit and listen, even play.
It's a version of the Chautauqua Music Festival in New York, where Penneys taught for more than three decades. After vacationing in Florida for the past 13 years, Penneys and her husband couldn't stay away. They made the official move to St. Pete Beach last year, settling into a house where you can hear the ocean from every room.
Penneys still commutes to New York to teach.
"But at some point you have to just build a bridge," she said. "So the first piece of the big bridge is to be here and have the festival here in the summer. I think it'll bring a lot of wonderful music and cultural awareness."
Garcia, 23, traveled from Colombia to study under Penneys. To the average ear, her performance was excellent. But Penneys' ear is different. She sat at a piano beside Garcia and played the same etude from memory with stunning legato, a flow that makes the key strokes sound smooth as a wave.
"Chopin was a piano teacher," Penneys said. "And he made his living by teaching piano. He would teach five and six hours a day."
The piano at that time was evolving, she explained. Chopin devised the etudes to teach his students to play on bigger keys, on an instrument that relied more on weight and less on pressure. The etude was about achieving connectivity.
Use all the muscles in the arms, Penneys told Garcia, not just the ones on top. Think of the keys like skin, a surface that bends with elasticity. Don't scrunch the face when you falter because it closes the ears. Curve the thumb as if holding a cantaloupe. Breathe.
The students in the crowd held imaginary cantaloupes and played along on seat backs. Garcia played again, and again, and again, smoother each time, and when she got it right, Penneys looked sidelong at her as if she had just shared a secret.
"Listen to your fingers," Penneys said. "Don't stop. Keep playing."
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3394.