Mary Grace Gellekanao: Dialogue with a unique concert pianist

Joyous anticipation was in the air. Parents, grandparents, and extended family members waited outside the Riverside Medical Center in Bacolod City, the Philippines, for the news, about to break any time now. At last the moment came when the baby girl, her parents' first child, entered this world, and let out a big cry. The birth of a newborn brings its own joy, but along with joy, this little girl brought some great concerns to her parents and grandparents: She was born with a congenital absence of part of her right forearm. The parents named her Mary Grace, as if to reflect the calm resignation and quiet faith of the Mary of the Bible--and as if to imply that this little bundle of life is indeed God's gift to them, to be brought up in His way, according to His will.

Mary Grace Gallekanao lived with her family in one compound, also shared by her grandparents. The grandparents showered their love on the growing child, and did not allow this disability to affect her future. When Grace showed interest in music and piano, her grandmother took it as a challenge. She sought teacher after teacher, but no one agreed to give her lessons. How could a girl without a forearm ever be able to master the keyboard? But both Grace and her grandmother were made of sterner stuff. They were not ones to easily give up. After months of walking up and down their town, their persistence paid off. One teacher wanted to be a part of the challenge, and she agreed to teach Grace, who was then only a child.

Today, 24 years later, Grace has mastered the piano. She practices for at least four hours a day and can play many difficult pieces. She also plays the organ. In 1994, Grace, encouraged by her teacher, Mrs. Sylvia Javellana, presented a solo organ recital. A year later, the country's Volunteers for the Rehabilitation of the Handicapped and the Disabled arranged for Grace's first public solo piano recital. It was a hit, but it was just the beginning.

In 1996, Grace started touring internationally and has been busy ever since with college studies and performances. She graduated in May 2001 from the University of St. La Salle, Bacolod City, with a degree in psychology. Grace hopes to use her musical talents to help others--especially those differently-abled such as herself--to accept themselves as God's special creation so that they can live productive, purposeful lives. She is currently volunteering with the 1,000 Missionary Movement in the Philippines.

Grace, when did you first become interested in music?

When I was around 6, I became very interested in music and wanted to play an instrument. So my grandma took me seriously and did everything possible until she was able to convince a piano teacher to take me in. My grandfather was more than willing to support me financially. Thanks to their confidence in me, I was able to discover an important part of myself.

You have indeed discovered a hidden potential.

Thanks to God and my loved ones. It didn't take long before I got to know what music is and what it requires. It takes a lot of will power and a lot of practice. I gave all I could to this art I love so much, and today I am able to play difficult pieces. Ironically, my right hand plays the hardest part of the piece. I admit that sometimes it hurts, especially when I'm playing a piece with a lot of runs. But I tell myself that the pain I go through with every key I strike is what makes my music unique from all others. The sound of the people's applause elates me because I make them happy. They appreciate my efforts and that's reward and remedy enough for a hurting forearm.

Where and how often have you performed?

With the support of my teacher, I decided to do a solo organ recital in 1994, and a solo piano recital the following year. Afterwards, things really picked up. The most unforgettable year for me was 1996. I went to many places to perform. In February, I performed in Guam during the 40th anniversary of the Guam Seventh-day Adventist Clinic. Two months later, together with some of my fellow students from the music school, I started a recital tour of Europe. The most memorable recital took place in Frankfurt, Germany, at the Buergerhaus of Hausen, for the Family Club of Offenbach. Among the guests who attended the recital was a former ambassador of the Philippines to Germany, the Honorable Francisco del Rosario. Afterward we toured other parts of Europe, and on the way home we passed through Bangkok, Thailand.

Other international concerts followed as I basked in the opportunities to share my musical gift with my audience--and win the love and appreciation of my own family along the way.

Your parents. Coming from the culture such as yours, they must have had their own difficulties to overcome during your early childhood, considering your disability.

My childhood was somewhat difficult because my parents had a hard time accepting the fact that their eldest child was born with a physical disability. I tried to understand their reactions to my misfortune, though I was really affected by their discomfiture. Nevertheless, I still feel that in one way or another, I'm fortunate that God endowed me with the gift of playing the piano and the organ, which gives me so much compensation for my condition.

I'm happy that God has been so good to me by allowing all these wonderful things to happen in my life. Playing has given me so much joy! And although things don't turn out the way we want them to be sometimes, we should always remember that everything He allows to come our way is with a purpose. God uses even the greatest error and the deepest hurt to mold us into persons of worth and value.

What was your college experience like?

My college life was the most memorable time for me. I began to mingle with other people. I gained a lot of friends and really started to enjoy life and share my music. I didn't have any trouble with my faith while in college--although it was a Catholic university. I did not have to take any classes on the Sabbath, and students and staff respected me and my beliefs.

I've had a few special people in my life, but there is one person I must mention. This friend has helped me to have a self-worth, fill up the empty space in my life, and keep close to God. She has given me the courage to face life and has helped me trust people. When I was younger, I couldn't express what I felt to anyone. I just kept it to myself. I longed to feel the sense of belonging, to be hugged. But I didn't get much of these-- until I met my special friend in college. As I've said, she has made my life more meaningful. I feel so blessed that she and others like her came my way.

Grace, just curious. Why did you study psychology in college, and not music?

I've always had this dream--to be a missionary through my music, somehow in my own little way, make a difference in someone else's life. I believe that a combination of psychology and music can help me to be effective in music therapy. I also hope that I can inspire others with disabilities. Physical disability isn't a hindrance toward success or happiness. I want people to realize this. I'm eager to make every minute of my life count for God. I'm sure that being a musician and at the same time a psychologist would really be of great help in achieving my desires.

Can you tell something about music therapy?

Music therapy is the systematic application of music in the treatment of physiological and psychological aspects of an illness or disability. It focuses on the acquisition of non-musical skills and behaviors, as determined by board-certified music therapists through systematic assessment and treatment planning.

Have you encountered difficulties due to your physical limitations?

There are times that I feel a little disappointed, especially when there are things that I wish to do but can't because of my limitations. For example, I need someone to help me cut my steak when I eat. I can't go roller skating. I can't open candy wrappers as other people do, and typing is difficult. I have to wear heavy orthopedic shoes, and that can be tiring.

Do you have any words of advice to our readers?

Never give up, for God is in control. At times I feel like giving up, but then I pray, and find in God the strength and comfort and love I need to carry on. I thank Him for He's always there to see me through. The great thing is that He's there for you, too. My favorite song is "God Will Make a Way." It's true--He'll make a way for us even if there seems to be no way. I've been through a lot since childhood. It was inevitable that some of my classmates would tease me and say things that could break my heart. But since I was young I have reminded myself that "God don't make no junk," as the saying goes, and that's what I want young people to remember. Everyone is special in His sight.

Interview by Kimberly Luste Maran. Kimberly Luste Maran is an assistant editor for the Adventist Review. Her e-mail is: