After being seriously injured by a hit-and-run in fall 2016, Jiaen Zhang was afraid she wouldn’t be able to fully recover to become a professional pianist. Thanks to her dedication, and the support of faculty and friends, the CCM piano student overcame her injuries and walked proudly with the Class of 2018 at this year’s Graduation Convocation on April 28.
Around 10 p.m. on Sept. 8, 2016, Zhang finished practicing piano in CCM’s Memorial Hall and began her walk home. As she crossed Calhoun Street, she was struck by an SUV, which threw her 20 feet and knocked her unconscious.
She woke up with fractures in her right hand and thigh, brain trauma and bruises on her lung and liver. After multiple surgeries on her thigh and hand, Zhang remained at the UC Medical Center for 20 days in recovery. Her thigh healed rapidly, but her hand remained in a plaster cast for three months.
“The flexibility of the joints in my third finger was completely lost,” Zhang remembers. “I had to start at zero, trying to at least move my injured finger. It took me two weeks before I could move it a single inch.”
While she recovered, her classmates and teachers at CCM sent her “heart-warming” messages, including a card with more than 60 signatures. Interim Dean bruce mcclung and Piano Department Chair Michael Chertock kept Zhang’s family in China updated throughout the ordeal. CCM Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Director of Graduate Studies Scott Lipscomb and the CCM College Office staff helped her make up missed classes so she would graduate on time. Zhang says her appreciation to them all “is beyond words.”
Chertock worked with Zhang to create a “back to piano” plan for her recovery. They began with simple pieces to rebuild the muscles in her injured hand. Chertock told her that the technical problems in her playing could be fixed with the right mindset.
“When you have the imagination and passion for music, your hands will find their own way to achieve whatever you want to do,” she says.
On Feb, 7, 2018 — year and a half after the hit and run — Zhang held her senior recital in CCM’s Robert J. Werner Recital Hall. She played a Mozart sonata, Alexander Scriabin’s Prelude and Nocturne for the Left Hand and Brahms’ challenging Op. 118. Chertock calls the recital a “heroic conclusion to a year and half of struggle.”
“She endured surgical screws in her right hand, multiple surgeries on her leg and a great deal of pain and scarring without the slightest trace of bitterness or anger,” Chertock says. “She rebuilt her piano playing and developed a style that is more broad, deeper into the keyboard and sustained.”
Zhang came to Cincinnati from her hometown of Guangzhou, China, to study at CCM. She says she was drawn to the college by its distinguished faculty and the artistry of its students.
“Since my first year here, I’ve learned a lot from the faculty and students,” she says. “In this environment, my studying and growth are not limited to only classrooms and lessons. It’s exciting to feel myself improve every minute. The friendly atmosphere encourages and reminds me to help my peers and people who haven’t had the advantage of studying music.”
Zhang was particularly fond of the piano repertoire class she took with instructor Andy Villemez, who recently won UC’s Outstanding Adjunct Instructor Award. The class gave her a broader understanding and knowledge of piano music, which helped her become more comfortable and confident when she gives lessons and presentations, she says.
“It taught me historical facts of piano music and how to better share this knowledge with audiences,” she says. “Rather than simply teaching my students how to play a nice sound, I can lead them to think about music in a more critical way by giving them the historical context of the pieces.”
She will continue studying with Chertock over the summer to prepare for her solo recital in China in September — it will be her debut in her home country after graduating from CCM with a bachelor of music in piano. After the recital, she plans to give piano lessons at a private music school in China.
“Jiaen’s calmness, courage and perseverance were ultimately able to overcome the reckless act that injured her,” Chertock says. “I will always remember her sincere desire to heal and refusal to live in despair.”