Learning to play one-handed piano

by Myrna Petlicki

Playing the piano has always brought great joy to Kay Breslin’s life. When she was a child she studied classical music. Then, 10 years ago, the Barrington resident began studying with Mark Miller, who has a studio in her town, and the sounds of jazz filled her home.

Six years ago, however, the music stopped.

“In August of ’98, I had what’s known as an AVM (Arteriovenous Malformation), which is like a brain aneurysm, and I was left paralyzed on my left side. My left hand and arm were affected so I couldn’t play the piano anymore,” Breslin said. “I never went back o it because I didn’t think it would be possible to play with one hand.”

One evening after that Breslin ran into Miller at a restaurant and he encouraged her to continue her lessons. She resisted, but about a year ago her friend, Celia Ginnodo of Arlington Heights, found a way to change Breslin’s mind. “She called Mark Miller and asked him to please make an arrangement for me with one hand. She gave me that for my birthday,” Breslin said.

That reopened a door the Breslin thought was closed forever, “I was forced into it – and she created a monster,” Breslin laughed. “It brought so much pleasure back into my life. It’s the one thing I have that I can really lose myself in. I don’t think of anything else or everything that’s happened to me when I’m playing my music.”

Breslin resumed her studies with Miller. He has since created about 20 right-handed arrangement for his enthusiastic student. Her favorite is “New York, New York,” because that’s Breslin’s hometown, but she also enjoys playing such numbers as “body and Soul” and Bridge OVer Troubled Waters.”

A couple of months ago, Breslin broke her hip, but that setback didn’t break her spirit. She spent time in Governor’s Park, and now is planning to perform a recital at that nursing home.

Piano teacher Mark Miller (right) has created some 20 right-handed arrangements so that Kay Breslin can play with one hand

Every week, Miller comes to Breslin’s house to give her an hour long lesson. “I teach her fingerings and some musicality, but she’s very musical. I spend most of my time writing the arrangements, which I bring to her. She’s a real trooper. She’s come such a long way,” he said.

Miller said that he writes the right-hand only arrangements specifically for Breslin, although he might one day compile them for presentation to a publisher. He noted that there are one-handed arrangements on the market, but most are classical and 90 percent of them are for the left hand. Using Miller’s arrangements, Breslin ranges across the entire keyboard with one hand and, she explained, she can play as many notes with one hand as she could previously with two.

“I love making arrangements for students. I love when it clicks for the,” Miller said.

Finding innovative ways to teach piano is nothing new to Miller, who started the Distance Jazz Piano Institute in 2001. Miller works with students across the United States and in other countries by first sending them a lead sheet, containing the melody an chord symbols, via computer.

At a pre-designated lesson time, Miller calls his student, who puts on a headset and plays the song. Miller listens, coaches and demonstrates on his own piano. During the week,

Using Miller’s arrangements, Breslin ranges across the entire keyboard and can play as many notes with one hand as she could previously with two.

” It brought so much pleasure back into my life”


students can send questions via e-mail and Miller promises to answer them within 24 hours.

By this method, Miller has worked with students in Hong Kong, New Zealand and England.

Miller earned a bachelor of arts degree in music theory from the University of Illinois, then studied jazz piano with De Paul University professor Alan Swain. He has operated Opus II Piano Studio in Barrington since 1988.

Since 1985, Miller has served as house pianist for One Pierce Place office complex in Itasca, playing weekdays from 11:30 a.m. – 2 p.m. He performs extensively as a solo pianist and with his trio at private parties and clubs.

Breslin is grateful to her friend for encouraging her to play again, “Every day when I’m playing – and I’m playing two hours a day now – I say a little prayer for Celia, because if it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be doing this,” she said.

She also has high praise for Miller’s role in getting her back on the bench. “He is so talented. The music is so wonderful you would never know it’s one hand,” Breslin said.

Reprinted from the Barrington Courier, Thursday October 7, 2004