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Music from the heart: Pianist Holly Vanden Berg releases first CD of original music

PIPESTONE -- Holly Vanden Berg doesn't know anyone who lives in Asia, but there are people there who know her music. She's sold quite a number of CDs via her Web site in Asian countries.

"The first person to buy my CD online was from Korea," Holly related.

Currently a student at Minnesota State University in Mankato, Holly recently released her debut CD of piano music, "Holly from the Heart." She celebrated the accomplishment with two CD-release parties over the summer -- a pool party in the Twin Cities and more recently, a gala evening event at the Pipestone Performing Arts Center. Holly also spent a lot of her summer on the road as a guest artist with the Plum Creek Library System's "Catch the Beat" summer reading program.

"Those library tours, all the towns I went to, really helped my career," she reflected. "It took it beyond Pipestone. We sent out posters, and I had all the kids sign my guest book, and then they got a postcard to be invited to my CD release party."

Throughout the library tour, Holly said she was inspired by the children she performed for and their enthusiasm for music. But the kids were undoubtedly inspired by her, too. Holly is blind, but doesn't let her disability limit her abilities.

"Before I was a year old, I lost my sight from detached retinas," Holly explains in her bio. "I had six eye surgeries. The surgeons hoped to save what little vision I had. It failed, and my family was devastated. They mourned my loss as if a death had occurred.

"When I was 2, my mother found new strength from God, family and friends, which enabled her to come to terms with my situation and accept it. She would tell everyone, 'I'm not going to let this beat me down.' She would take me wherever she went and had me feel everything. She would verbally put a label on items, such as cups, measuring spoons, socks, door knobs, etc. That was the key to understanding my environment."

Holly also related with her environment through sounds, and "loved anything that made sounds," so it was natural that she should want to make music.

"I started playing piano when I was 1 year old, on a tiny little keyboard that my grandma gave me for my birthday," Holly explained during a recently phone interview. "I messed around on that for like four years until Mom put me in piano lessons. ... I started performing in front of people when I was 8 and getting paid for it, but I didn't make my album until this year."

Three piano teachers have guided and nurtured Holly's musical progress over the years, and Holly acknowledges that teaching someone who is blind requires a special knack. In her bio, she recalls her very first piano lesson.

"So my mother dropped me off at the piano teacher's house. When she returned to pick me up, we showed her what I had learned. The piano teacher told my mom that I could name every note on the piano, that I had learned two new songs and had perfect pitch. This meant that when my piano teacher played a song, I could play it back almost exactly as she had done. This also means that I can tell you what key any song is in.

"For more difficult pieces, I can learn them by listening to tapes, and over time, I learn the piece by listening to it and playing along with it if I do it over and over again until I have the piece mastered. This could take me anywhere from an hour for simple pieces or a couple of weeks with the more complex pieces. If I hear a song on the radio over and over again, and it is a song meant for playing piano and singing, I can eventually get to the point where I am able to play the song perfectly without having to practice it. No one knows how I can do this. And the truth is, not even I know the answer to this question."

But more than being able to play songs she hears on the radio or elsewhere, Holly enjoys playing her own compositions. She wrote her first song at age 6, a piece she called "In the Bamboo Forest," which is performed using only the piano's black keys. Since then, she has composed hundreds of pieces and says her repertoire exceeds a thousand songs.

"When I write a song, I compose it in my head," she explained. "If it's a good piece, I remember it. If it's not a good piece, it's forgotten. ... Usually I compose a piece first, then I come up with the title. Most pieces are composed through life experiences. For example, there's one piece I wrote, called 'On Alki Beach' that I wrote when I came back from Seattle, Wash. When I was out there, I visited this beach, and it was a musician's hangout with all these musicians playing really cool instruments like marimbas, xylophones. I wanted to reflect the mood of hanging out on the beach, so I came home and created this song."

At Minnesota State University, Holly is a "super junior," with just three credits left until she is officially a senior. She is studying music education and public speaking in hopes of furthering her music career.

"What I've always wanted to do is go on tour and make albums and perform in front of crowds," she said. "Since I was 8 years old, I've known that whatever job I would do would have to incorporate music. But it's hard to start from the bottom up."

Holly credits the support of her family -- parents Gwen and Milt Vanden Berg and brother Thomas, 16 -- as well as friends and community in helping her achieve her goals. And she's also taking advantage of new opportunities provided by technology.

"You have to get your name out there, word of mouth," Holly said. "Then people check out the Web site. It gets international distribution, and I'm also on digital distribution, so if people don't want to buy the whole CD, they can just buy one song. Thus far, 33 companies have signed on to do that. There are also some cell phone companies that have signed me on to do ring tones."

Holly figures she has at least two years left at college, and then she'll see how far she can get in the music business.

"I want to go on tour and play at different venues. I want to play at fairs, arts in the park, home shows, art centers and auditoriums, and eventually get to play in big-time places and, hopefully, meet some good people who want to go on tour with me," she dreamed about the future.

Holly's debut CD includes a couple of songs with guest violinist Diane Peterson of Jasper. Holly hopes to someday do an album that features multiple collaborations. With one album under her belt, she's already looking toward a second release. Thus far, she's written one piece for it, "The Coming of the Storm," a dramatic composition that she debuted at the Pipestone event.

Holly knows that making her dreams come true depends on both luck and her own determination to succeed.

"You've got to be in the right place at the right time," she acknowledged. "But you gotta dream big. You gotta name it to claim it."

On the Net:

www.hollysmusic.com

Beth Rickers
Beth Rickers is the veteran in the newspaper staff with 25 years as the Daily Globe's Features Editor. Interests include cooking, traveling and beer tasting and making with her home-brewing husband, Bryan. She writes an Area Voices blog called Lagniappe, which is a Creole term that means "a little something extra." It can be found at http://lagniappe.areavoices.com/.  
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