MACSA Alumni are making phenomenal accomplishments in their professional careers! For our Winter MACSA Center Stage Alumni spotlight, we’re featuring MACSA Alumna A. W. Downer.
Downer began her musical journey at a young age. Growing up in a household filled with music, Downer started piano lessons at the age of four. Though at times reluctant to invest in hours of practice, Downer kept at it with the encouragement of her mother, eventually finding a true dedication to the instrument. Upon entering high school, Downer began taking music lessons at MACSA with A.J. Collins. “It was a whole different level of piano instruction,” Downer shared. “It was under A.J.’s tutelage that I went from practicing to becoming a pianist and even won a Superior Plus at Music Auditions my sophomore year of high school.”
During her senior year of high school, Downer studied with MACSA teacher Corrie Box. “Working with Corrie was really good for me because I learned more freestyle piano. I tended to play mostly classical music, and what was on the page was what I played. With Corrie, I learned how to improvise more and to take a melody and make it into a song.” Downer also plays guitar. Though mostly self-taught, she was able to take what she learned about improvisation on the piano and apply it to her playing. Additionally, Downer studied with MACSA voice teacher Lindsey Van De Kirk and was able to share her love of singing by joining her university choir in college.
Downer shared more about her experience studying at MACSA. “Studying with MACSA helped me learn how to teach myself songs and even how to write my own songs. The university I attended had no music program, but there were several pianos around campus for people to play. During my first year, I made sure to practice every Monday, Wednesday, Friday and taught myself part of a Mozart Sonata. I joked that my backpack was heaviest those days because of Mozart. I continued to practice regularly throughout my time at university. I was so thankful to have the knowledge and tools to do so. Toward the end of my sophomore year and into that summer, I wrote a piano piece to play at the fall talent show my junior year. I used things that both A.J. and Corrie had taught me in composing that piece…I was also able to write a love song for my husband that I played at our wedding reception.”
Downer kept music as an active part of her life. Her goal was to become a published author, though for a time she intended to teach piano in this pursuit. She ultimately majored in English with minors in Biblical studies and Spanish studies and went on to earn an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. All the while, returning to the piano to find peace during times of stress.
Now a published author, Downer has found a connection between her writing and music. “Music and writing go hand-in-hand, I think. Music can be such a part of people’s lives, and I write about people. I confess that I often write songs for my characters or for scenes in my stories as well as songs for different stages of my life. I find singing and playing songs for my stories helps me to flesh things out and dig into the emotions of the characters. My characters tend to be musical as well, such as one who makes a living as a traveling minstrel.”
Downer’s own life experiences with music even inspire her stories. “One of my favorite scenes in my new book, Best Friends Playbook, is when my main character, sixth- grader Hannah Taylor, is feeling awkward at a tea party. After tea, all the girls start playing piano, which Hannah doesn’t know how to do. One of the other girls teaches her the melody to “Heart and Soul,” and then they play and sing all together. That scene was inspired by my middle school parties when we would gather around the piano to play and sing.”
For Downer, music is a continued source of expression and joy. “A few years ago, I came down with the illness myalgic encephalomyelitis. Because of the fatigue, I haven’t been able to play as much the last few years. But whenever I have the energy, I love to sit down at the piano to play and sing. I mostly play show tunes now, but I try to pull out Mozart and Chopin to keep myself sharp. I know it’s a good day when I can play three songs in a row without losing my breath. Playing guitar tends to be a little easier, so I do that more. It’s definitely a way to relax and express myself.”
This love for music is now being passed on to the next generation. “My daughter is now learning piano on my grandmother’s old upright,” Downer shared. “She’s the third generation of my family to learn to play on that piano!”
Downer is thankful for her musical journey and her mother’s persistent encouragement to practice. Downer’s advice for musicians at the beginning of their journey: “…keep practicing, even when it’s hard, frustrating, or annoying! You’ll appreciate it someday.”