Sunlight beams in through the large windows at the front of the living room as Robert Schonlau sits before the gleaming ivory keys. His face, reflected in the glossy black finish above the ivories, is contemplative and serene as he adjusts the large-rimmed glasses on his face.
Back straight and feet reaching for the pedals, the 16-year-old pianist sets his fingers to the smooth keys.
The notes start low and slow, a tripping tempo that gradually picks up speed as Robert’s fingers start flying across the keys. Suddenly, his shoulders begin to sway with the music, his hands arcing up and down the keyboard in fluid movements. For five minutes, Robert moves with the music, his body in tune with the melody that he created.
The music hits a crescendo, the pedals underfoot making it sound like several hands thundering at the keys instead of just two. Just as quickly, the swell slows, quieting as Robert reaches the final note. It hangs in the air for a brief moment before dissipating.
For Robert, playing the piano and other instruments is one of his main forms of expression.
“When you get into a really good song, it's like communicating without using words,” Robert said. “It just kinda feels like raw emotion you pass onto someone else when you’re really into it. I like that.”
Until about a month ago, only the Schonlau family and a few others had the privilege to hear Robert play on the Hallet, Davis & Co. piano that the family keeps in their front room. But on Feb. 6, Robert’s mom, Julie, posted several videos on the Oxford Talk (OHIO) Facebook page to showcase her son’s talent. She asked about opportunities for him to play in the community, citing his desire to volunteer more as a pianist.
The response was immediate and positive: 300 people liked the post and 76 commented on it with praise or recommendations of places to play. Requests came pouring in from various churches around Oxford, the Knolls of Oxford, the Oxford Community Arts Center, the Oxford Senior Center and the Oxford Medical Nursing Home.
Julie appreciates the encouragement from the Oxford community.
“I think it's neat when we have opportunities to share talents and something that he obviously has a gift for,” Julie said. “So it's been nice to see that appreciated, and hopefully he’ll get to share it even more.”
For over eight years, Robert has been building on his piano skills, working with various piano masters and teachers. Right before the family moved from Utah to Oxford 18 months ago, his last teacher encouraged him to take his piano prowess to the next level.
“My last teacher was trying to get me to compete in piano,” Robert said, “and I don't really like competing much; I like performing. So when we moved here, I just kinda played by myself.”
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For several months, Robert took a break from the piano to pursue cross country and track at Talawanda High School. But when a run-in with a fence post severely injured his leg nine months ago, Robert suddenly found himself with a lot of time on his hands.
And those hands were itching to get back to those ivory keys.
Every day, Robert plays for at least one or two hours. He teaches pieces to himself now, experimenting with different styles and compositions to improve his skills. On top of that, he’s also picked up guitar and voice lessons, teaching himself new songs on an almost 50-year-old guitar passed down from his great-grandmother.
Robert likes to experiment with guitar and piano chords for his own compositions, too, blending together the two styles to see how they work. He’s close to completing an original piece, though every time he plays it, he switches up the ending.
“It’s mostly there, I just gotta figure out some finishing things, name it and all of that,” Robert said.
And, amid his busy schedule, Robert still finds time to teach local elementary school students how to play piano as well. Given that his mother is also a piano teacher and his parents met over the instrument, this doesn’t come as a great shock.
In 1999, a young Julie and her husband met at Brigham Young University in Utah — two music lovers who connected instantly over a shared passion.
“He gave me sheet music to try out, and it was really hard,” Julie said with a laugh. “And so we just spent a lot of time playing piano duets before we started dating. That’s just a really fun memory.”
Now, all four kids and both parents in the Schonlau family play the piano in some context, filling the house with never-ending music.
“I love the piano, and even when I'm making dinner while [Robert’s] teaching piano, I love to just hear him teaching and just excelling in all these areas around music,” Julie said. “We all love [it], and it’s been a huge blessing for our family.”