A beautiful piano melody filled the Montgomery Student Center at Converse College on the day Sarah Reinhardt met Peter Rosset last year. The source was an 11-year-old boy with big glasses and a bright smiling sitting behind the keys of a grand piano in the lobby of the student hall. Leukemia treatment took a toll on his small body and Down syndrome crimped his conversational abilities, but Reinhardt said she was enthralled by his talent.
When Peter was diagnosed with leukemia, his parents contacted the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Peter's wish was to have a Steinway grand piano, like the ones he plays at Converse, at home.
"I passed by and he was playing piano, and I stopped to listen. He was playing so well I left him a little tip, One dollar. He didn't take that very well. He tried to give it back to me a couple times," said Reinhardt, a native of Greer.
Peter, now 12, takes piano lessons from Holly Barnes at Converse's Lawson Academy of the Arts. Sometimes, before or after classes, he stops and plays for a while on the student center piano, which his mother, Ivy Rosset, said he likes because it is just like the one in his lessons.
After three years of studying piano, Peter executes, with grace and precision, pieces by many of the most esteemed classical composers without even a glance at sheet music. Frederic Chopin and Johann Sebastian Bach are his favorite composers. Nocturne in C sharp minor is his favorite piece to play. The selection also was featured in the three-time Oscar winning movie "The Pianist."
Peter and Reinhardt crossed paths several more times and struck up a friendship, sitting at the piano together and walking on Converse's campus. “They have a great relationship, and they have a lot of fun together. I know Peter has gained a lot from it, and I think Sarah has, too. The just seemed to click really well,” Ivy Rosset said.
Peter is home schooled, and Reinhardt, now a sophomore, has spent the last year as his tutor. Twice each week for two hours a day, Reinhardt teaches Peter about history, geography and computer skills. The Down syndrome causes Peter to struggle with expressive speech, but he is very smart. Reinhardt said she mixes computer skills with traditional lessons, hands-on learning and physical activity to help Peter learn.
Ivy Rosset and her husband, Jean-Michel Rosset, decided when their son was only 3 days old that he would go to college. Reinhardt does everything she can to help make that happen. “Sometimes people underestimate people with special needs,” Ivy Rosset said. “Sarah never treated him that way. She expects him to deliver, and he does.”
Tutoring Peter was a transformative experience, Reinhardt said. She's always wanted to be a teacher, but meeting Peter and developing a relationship with him cemented her decision to pursue a career in special education. She is passionate about individualized lessons that provide all students with the opportunity to learn.
Watching Peter battle leukemia and continue to display his cheerful personality was very inspirational and motivating, Reinhardt said. “He is so loving. He's funny and unpredictable, and all he wants to do is make people laugh. Sometimes he'll go up to people and just start tickling them. We're working on that,” she said.
A year and a half after he was diagnosed, Peter's leukemia is in remission. He still takes chemotherapy treatments daily and will for the next two years. The treatments leave him feeling tired, and his weakened immune system is vulnerable to disease. Through it all, Peter continues to play the piano. “I think music has helped him a lot. He just really focuses on that when he's feeling bad,” Ivy Rosset said. “Sometimes I think he uses the music to communicate.”
On Nov. 30, Peter opened for The Carolina Ballet Theater's performance of “The Nutcracker” at The Peace Center in Greenville. More than 1,000 people attended the show.
When Peter was diagnosed with leukemia, his parents contacted the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Peter's wish was to have a Steinway grand piano, like the ones he plays at Converse, at home. The upright he practices on just didn't have the same sound to the ears of a boy with perfect pitch.
Before he sat down to play Johann Pachelbel's “Canon in D” and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” Make-A-Wish representatives told him on stage that the grand piano on which he was about to perform would be going home with him.
Peter walked to the front of the stage, took a deep bow and then began to play.
“Oh my gosh, I cried through the whole thing,” Reinhardt said. Reinhardt missed part of Converse College's annual Peppermint Ball to be at the performance. “That's one of the largest parts of his life, and I just want to support him in anything he wants to do,” she said.
Through the trials of her son's young life, Ivy Rosset said she thinks it's his friendships and music that sustain his spirit.
Peter's music can be viewed on his YouTube channel, Rosset4music. It contains videos of 11 of his performances. The channel is 10 months old and has about 9,600 views, but Peter said he wants to reach a million views from people all over the world.
This story was written by Felicia Kitzmiller of the Spartanburg Herald-Journal and republished with permission. Photo credit: Luke Connell