A modest man realizes a long-held dream

Idyllwild resident Michael Staff is a modest man, an everyman — a devoted husband and father, and a contributing member of his community. To all outward appearances, he is an ordinary man. But his quiet and respectful demeanor belies his sparkling intellect, artistic depth and multi-dimensional imagination.

Local Michael Staff plays Saturday at Carnegie Hall. Photo by Marshall Smith

Unlike many with great talent, Staff does not readily talk about himself. He does not, in social settings or in conversation, seek the spotlight.

Yet this gently introverted man will occupy front and center at Carnegie Hall in New York City on Saturday, Nov. 3, in the spotlight on one of classical music’s most storied stages.

Getting there has been an arduous journey of many years — relaunching a promising career that was put on hold 13 years ago, by a personal crisis.

At age 21, while preparing for the prestigious Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, Staff experienced a nervous breakdown. His technique and artistry had already marked him as someone to watch, someone with a major concert career ahead. Then came the crash. “I was studying with Dr. Tao Chang [Azusa Pacific University] and working on Tchaikovsky’s ‘Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor’ and Schumann’s ‘Piano Concerto in A minor’ when I had the breakdown, precipitated by the pressure of preparation and some neurological issues,” Staff recounted.

He couldn’t continue. He no longer had the emotional or physical ability to go on with music. He stepped away, to regroup, redefine and heal. Two years later he met the woman who would become his wife. With Erin’s help and support he begin to think about concert piano once again. He washed windows to support his family. After five years, the physical strain on his hands and his overall physical health became too apparent to ignore. “I realized that living was more than surviving,” he recalled. “Erin helped me get enough private piano students to allow me to quit manual labor that would negatively affect my hands.” He gradually resumed playing.

In 2014, he began playing at Mile High Café. In 2017, he won second place at the McCallum Theater’s Open Call competition in Palm Desert. He recorded a CD of his own compositions titled “Dreams of a Somnambulist,” thematically exploring the relationship between math, one of Staff’s great obsessions, and music, the other. In February of this year, he appeared at Stephens Hall of the Idyllwild Arts campus to demonstrate, in lecture and performance, “Intersection: The Math Behind the Music.”

In the spring of this year, he entered the Golden Classical Musical Awards International Competition and was notified in early summer that he had won a first prize gold medal and the right to appear on Saturday, Nov. 3, at Carnegie Hall. For the competition and online submission, he played selections from Bach’s “Art of the Fugue” and Chopin’s “Etudes Opus 10.” “I also won a bronze medal in the Global Music Awards with the same submission material,” said Staff.

At Carnegie Hall, he will play his own composition, the second version of his “Variations on Gounod’s Marche Funèbre D’Une Marionnette.” “Gounod’s theme is played at the beginning, then it’s my piece from then on,” said Staff.

The life he is fashioning for his career, wife and two young children also is his composition from this point on — created with the balance and structure that math helps define, and the beauty and joy that music creates.

When asked what is coming next professionally, he answered that he will be expanding into writing for chamber music — string quartets. “It will be my first foray into other instruments, voices and permutations. I’ll be looking at counterpoint, form and structure, and the sonata form. I’m finally figuring out my place in everything.”

Asked how important Idyllwild has been in helping him find his way forward, he smiled and said, “I don’t know how to live anywhere else but Idyllwild.”

Staff teaches piano privately to students of all ages. For more information about him, visit his website at www.michaelstaff.com.