The blind pianist that has performed before Presidents and the Pope.
Pianist Carlos “Chuckie” Ibay was only 2 years old when he started fidding with the keyboard. And 34 Years later he has played before Pope Francis at the blessing of a mosaic image of Filipino Saint Pedro Calungsod, which was installed permanently in the Vatican. The young concert pianist and tenor is Filipino-American. He also happens to be blind.
Chuckie, as he is fondly called, was born on September 4, 1979 in Fairfax, Virginia to Filipino parents, Carmencita Jimenez from Nueva Ecija and Roman Ibay from Pangasinan. Born prematurely, he weighted just 1 lb. 14 oz. He lost his eyesight due to oxygen deprivation while in the incubator where he spent the first three months of his life.
His highly developed sense of hearing is another story. “I can hear the crack of peanuts a mile away,” Chuckie says. At home, he can hear his mom unwrapping candy in the basement. He is not an outdoorsy person, he explains, because he doesn’t like the buzzing sound of insects, which for him is “intensified 10 times more than normal.”
During his first visit to the Philippines when he was eight years old, he “saw” a pig being slaughtered at a relative’s house in the province. He remembers hearing the pig’s squeals.
Chuckie was two years old when he started fiddling with the keyboard. When he was three years old, his parents bought for him his first Steinway, an upright piano, “just to keep me from getting bored,” he says. When he turned 16, his parents gifted him with a Steinway grand piano, “in place of a car, since he cannot drive anyway,” his mom explains.
His first piano teacher was an Argentinian exchange student of music from Buenos Aires who came to teach him once a week when he was six until he was eight years old. Shortly after, he was mentored by Thomas Schumacher, whose own teacher was Adele Marcus, “the greatest teacher of the 20th century,” Chuckie says. The American pianist is well-known for mentoring many famous pianists.
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Schumacher was a professor at the University of Maryland, and then at the Eastman Conservatory of Music in New York. Chuckie says that the years he spent under Schumacher’s tutelage were “the best seven years of my piano education.”
The admiration seems mutual. Of his student, Schumacher is quoted in a US magazine feature story as saying: “His lessons were always a joy, as we had so much fun in the learning process. Carlos is exceptional, primarily because of his extraordinary ear — he is able to reproduce on the piano any sound he hears, not just pitch-wise, but dynamic level, nuance, rhythm and tempo.”
Chuckie started taking voice lessons when he was 15. He studied with Dr. Thomas Mastroianni, former dean of the Music Department at the Catholic University of America in Washington D.C. and president of the American Liszt Society, as well as Dr. Harry Dunstan, the founding director of the American Center for Puccini Studies. Chuckie can sing “as tenor with a high note of up to B natural and as baritone with a low note of B natural one octave below.” His repertoire ranges from opera arias, sacred songs, American standards, Broadway and even Philippine kundiman.
Chuckie continued his studies at George Mason University in Virginia for two years, and spent the next two years at Mannes College, a classical music conservatory in New York. He has since been kept busy joining competitions and giving concerts in various venues in different states in the US and around the world. He can name the countries in alphabetical order, he says, and proceeds to do so. He has performed in Australia, Brazil, Hong Kong, Israel, Italy, the Philippines, Portugal, Russia and Spain. He can speak seven languages other than English — French, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian and Japanese.
The highlights of his musical career include performances at the Carnegie Hall in New York City, the Kennedy Centre in Washington D.C., the Rachmaninoff Center of the Arts in Russia, and the Teatro Storchi in Modena, Italy where he sang with famed Italian soprano, Cecilia Gasdia. He has also performed at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. He competed in the 12th Arthur Rubinstein Master Piano Competition in Tel-Aviv and performed for the 60th Israeli Independence Day, which was called “President’s Conference, 60th Year of Israel-USA Friendship,” where world leaders were in attendance including President George Bush and his wife Laura, Prime Minister Tony Blair, and President Mikhail Gorbachev.
During his recent visit this January in the Philippines, his 10th time in the country, he gave a series of performances in various venues, including The Block in SM North and SM Aura in Taguig, where he performed before 1,000 high school students. At Teatrino in Greenhills, he performed at a benefit concert titled “Triumphant in Spirit,” for retired Maryknoll sisters who served in the Philippines. At the Far Eastern University, he collaborated with celebrated Filipino pianist, Raul Sunico in a performance of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto #2. He also gave a master class to three lucky students from the University of Santo Tomas Conservatory of Music. Back home in Virginia, Chuckie works in the music ministry at St. Michael Church in Annandale, where he is the organist and cantor. A devout Catholic, he attends daily Mass at St. Mary of Sorrows, his parish church in Fairfax. His motto is — “Let God’s work show forth.” He has never felt anything lacking in his life, because his faith is so strong, he says. “I’m just like everyone else. I’m just using what God gave me.”