Shirley Smith Kirsten

From Chemo to Carnegie Hall, a Local Pianist makes her New York Debut


This is a heart-wrenching story that reads like a movie script. A gifted musician in the throes of her teaching career is stricken with cancer, endures bouts of energy-draining chemotherapy, but clings to the piano as her lifeline. In the final scene, she’s not on her death bed, but on the stage of Carnegie to rousing cheers!

Rebecca at Carnegie Hall

It could be a Rocky remake without the ringside ruckus, belly punches and hits below the belt.

Still, music conquers all!

Here’s the riveting blog segment (December 3, 2013) that dramatized a set of unraveling events in the life of Pianist-Protagonist, Rebecca Bogart.

“Near the end of the second round of chemotherapy drugs, my oncologist noticed a new lump under my right arm. She looked worried. “What if it’s another tumor?,” I asked. She replied, “That would be bad if the cancer is spreading while you are on chemo.” I was scheduled for a second surgery in a two weeks. ‘“We’ll just have to see what it is when we go in to clear the margins from the first tumor.”‘

“For the next 14 days I was terrified that I might be dying. Who would take care of my cats if I died? How much pain would I go through before I passed away? Would I lose my house before I no longer needed it? Could I afford hospice care?

“When I awoke in my hospital bed, my friend told me the lump was not cancer, just a blocked lymph node. I experienced joy more intense than I ever had before or since. I had a view of top of a concrete building and blue sky out the hospital window – it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. The sky was luminous and almost vibrating. Since that day in the hospital, the rest of my life seems to me like winning the lottery. I’ve given myself the choice to spend it in whatever way makes me the happiest…..”

I met up with Rebecca, heroine of this drama-packed journey just as I arrived in Berkeley, California.

A colleague, and member of our Alameda MTAC branch, she was prepping for a New York City recital that I supposed was of her own planning.

Any number of pianists, can rent a well known concert venue, print programs and gather an audience of friends, followers for a personally produced event.

But as details unfolded, I learned that Rebecca had been a winner at the 2013 Bradshaw and Buono International Piano Competition that accorded a glittery Big Apple concert appearance. (She was among hundreds of entrants vying for prizes on stair-step levels leading to the Gold tier)

But a plot twist made the story even more compelling.

Rebecca mentioned in one of her Blog entries that “the email informing her of award got lost, so she wasn’t able to perform on the Winners’ Concert at Carnegie in May 2013.”

“After several conversations with the organizers of the event, it was decided that she would be featured at ‘The Artists of the Alexander and Buono Masterclass Series’ in February 2014.”

By then, she had her energy back and was in peak practicing shape to give it a GO!

Snatches from the BIG concert reveal gorgeous artistry that would shine on any coast.

But what’s even more inspirational and enlightening are Rebecca’s own philosophical reflections about life in the aftermath of her cancer battle.

“I find it takes a certain mental strength to not allow myself to fall into well-worn, dark negative ways of thinking. I was really down in the trenches every day fighting this issue while I was in cancer treatment and facing major financial catastrophe. But now that I have worked my way through that phase of life, I am able to be in touch with being happy just to be alive. Another example of seeing the glass half full rather than half empty.”

Treasured words to savor!



Rebecca’s CDs include American Restrospective

American Retrospective


About the Bradshaw and Buono International Competition

2 thoughts on “From Chemo to Carnegie Hall, a Local Pianist makes her New York Debut”

  1. Shirley, thank you for this beautiful post. The force of it all hit me again as I read your beautiful writing, and I was awash in a wave of gratitude for your skill as a writer, for my continued existence, and for the healing power of music and creativity.


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