When From the Top met Stephanie Nilles, she was just 16 years old and already an award-winning, classical pianist. She performed with two different piano ensembles during our first and second seasons on the air and then went on to the Cleveland Institute of Music, where she graduated with a Bachelor's of Music in classical piano performance. Upon graduating, however, Stephanie began to question her career direction.
"I was performing in international competitions and unofficially preparing for the Van Cliburn Competition, which was a few years down the road," she recalls. "I was practicing in a room by myself for seven or eight hours a day, and it started to occur to me that I was unhappy."
Stephanie knew she loved music and she knew she loved performing, but she was growing increasingly frustrated with the process of sitting alone for so many hours at a time playing classical music. The 2004 election also had a profound effect on what she was experiencing at the time. "I started to feel like the music I was playing didn't relate to the world around me."
Stephanie decided to quit music altogether. She packed her things, moved to New York City, and took various odd jobs, doing everything but playing music. She soaked up city life, frequenting anti-folk clubs in the East Village and eventually befriending some jazz musicians who encouraged her to try her hand at jazz improv.
"At the time, I was also going to a lot of open mike nights, and I started thinking to myself, 'I could do that.' So I started writing songs."
Now at the age of 25, Stephanie has emerged as a singer/songwriter with a unique jazz/folk sound. Described by fans as "Ella Fitzgerald on speed beating the [bleep!] out of Regina Spektor," Stephanie writes poignant and ironic lyrics for her politically-charged songs, and draws on her classical training to explore new genres of music.
Stephanie spends most of her time on the road, traveling from town to town, performing at coffee houses and bars all over the country. She plays 20-25 gigs per month and loves the direction her life has taken, despite the hardships that come with the territory.
"There are times I've had to depend on the kindness of strangers to take me in and feed me, but it should be hard," she says. I'm making a living playing my own music and that should be incredibly challenging."
Stephanie is an amazing example of the thousands of multi-talented and creative From the Top alumni who follow diverse and interesting life paths. "I love the process of what I'm doing," says Stephanie. "My whole life is a big adventure at this point!"