The year is 1962: A radio in the living room of a family’s home in Baltimore plays the first stanzas of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” as an introduction for a daily program.
Pianist Sara Davis Buechner, then 3 years old, said she felt “electricity” in her chest when she listened to the composition — an experience she turned into a ritual. When she turned 6, her parents bought her a bust of Mozart as a present.
“Remember to try to make Mr. Mozart proud,” Buechner remembered her mother saying when she opened the gift.
She said it still sits on her Yamaha piano as she practices, but with a chipped nose.
Now, more than 50 years later, Buechner has professionally performed the works of composers like Mozart, Frédéric Chopin and George Gershwin in hundreds of concert halls all over the country and across the world, including Carnegie Hall in New York City. She’s been honored with international awards like a gold medal at the Gina Bachauer International Piano Competition in 1984.
Buechner became a piano professor at Temple last semester and will perform with the Temple University Symphony Orchestra on Feb. 10 in the Temple Performing Arts Center.
Buechner said her family was poor growing up, but what the family lacked in money, her mother made up for in cultural exposure. She constantly rented books and paintings from the local library and Baltimore’s classical music station was always playing on the radio.
“My mother was of this generation of Americans who thought … the real American dream was to make sure your kids did better than you did in terms of financial opportunity and in our case, real education,” Buechner said. “My mother felt if she pushed us … that our world would be bigger than theirs. And to a great extent, I think she was proven right.”
Of all her success, Buechner said she remembers the performances that didn’t go quite right. One, about 30 years ago, seemed like a typical performance until the pedal assembly fell off her piano and clattered to the floor mid-song at a Massachusetts boarding school.
Buechner asked the crowd to call a janitor to the room with a hammer and set of nails. Side by side, the two laid on their backs underneath the piano, hammered the pedal assembly back in place and she finished the concert.
“That audience of young boys, they cheered like crazy,” Buechner said. “They thought that was about the best thing they’d ever seen.”
The most troubling parts of her career began in 1998, when she officially transitioned from a man to a woman, and David became Sara — the name of an imaginary friend Buechner had as a child, she said. She lost her job at a conservatory in New York and began teaching at Amadeus Conservatory in Chappaqua, New York, playing only a few concerts per year.
Buechner said she always knew the gender assigned to her at birth wasn’t her true identity, similar to the way she was always intrigued by the piano.
She played jacks and dolls with other girls at school as she got older. She loved baseball, but preferred to watch on the sidelines rather than play. The disconnect was always there, but she didn’t know resources for transgender people existed until she read books about transitioning during her early 30s.
“I just didn’t realize there were other people [like me],” Buechner said. “At a certain point, I allowed myself to be who I am and gradually learned to accept and love myself.”
Accepting her own identity didn’t mean outsiders would follow suit. Her immediate family was “horrified.” When she attempted to legally change her name to Sara at court in Manhattan, the clerks pointed and laughed. A therapist she was working with wouldn’t allow Buechner to start hormone therapy because the pianist had too much at stake professionally.
“What do you have to lose if you can’t be who you are? Everything. Your life,” Buechner said.
She sought acceptance in Vancouver, Canada, where her “true persona, not new persona” was welcomed, she said. She started teaching at the University of British Columbia and married musician Kayoko Segawa, whom she met in Japan more than 20 years ago. This year, the couple will celebrate their 12th anniversary.
Sophomore piano performance major Evelyn Tjiandri was a student of Buechner’s at the University of British Columbia. When she heard Dr. B, as she calls her, was coming to Temple, she transferred to accompany her.
She said her parents were shocked when she told them her plans, but she was stubborn.
Tjiandri said in her home country of Indonesia, teachers are focused on technicalities like how fast a student’s fingers can move, but Buechner doesn’t follow that same teaching style.
“We should not lose our own integrity as pianists,” Tjiandri said. “That’s what I get from her.”
Buechner’s restlessness is what landed her in Philadelphia after 13 years of living in Canada — as well as an open position at the university.
As a new faculty member, she purchased a copy of Russell Conwell’s “Acres of Diamonds” speech. But the founder’s vision of equal access to education wasn’t the deciding factor. It was the food trucks.
“A fabulous array of trash and junk, I love it,” she said. “That’s America, isn’t it?”
As she sat in her apartment near 17th and Walnut streets, Buechner wondered out loud about the big and small compromises that people make, whether it be a job, marriage or coming out.
She said transitioning showed her the good and bad of humanity. One of the lessons that stood out the most was humans’ hatred for complication on any scale.
The next day, she applied makeup and put on a red dress for a performance in New York to make others feel more comfortable. But that night, wearing no makeup and layers of thick, downy clothing, she said she felt comfortable as herself.
“To me, complications of culture and language and color and all those things make the word really wonderful,” Buechner said.
Grace Shallow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @grace_shallow.