A Second Movement con Brio
Cindy Lam feared a car crash would derail her future as a concert pianist. Then she met Dr. Milan Stevanovic.
By Scarlet Cheng 01/03/2013
A car crash nearly ended Cindy Lam’s dream of becoming a concert pianist. On Sept. 2, 2002, she had just begun her studies at the USC Thornton School of Music when a car she was riding in spUN out of control. With her boyfriend at the wheel, the couple sped down New York Drive in Pasadena; the car suddenly careened, flew over the sidewalk, through a telephone pole and a fence, finally crashing into a tree. “We were going so fast,” she recalls somberly. “My elbow went through the window when we crashed. I didn’t even feel it happen — all of a sudden it was very dusty.”
The boyfriend was relatively unscathed, but Lam was rushed to the emergency room, where her bleeding elbow was treated and bandaged. Later, as the skin was healing, she felt sharp pain in her elbow and upper arm. It turned out that shards of glass were still lodged inside her joints and under the skin. How would she be able to play the piano properly with such pain? Doctors told her that surgery might make things worse. Lam was understandably discouraged, even depressed.
Today, sitting on the front porch of her Pasadena home, all that seems a long time ago, and indeed, 10 years have passed since. While the physical and psychological trauma of the accident is still clear in her mind, Lam is eagerly steaming ahead with her concert pianist career and performing in top form. Fortunately, Lam had her seatbelt on during the crash, which limited the damage largely to her ulnar nerve. The important ulnar nerve is one of the three main nerves in the arm, running to the hand, and it carries messages from the brain to the hand. When X-rays showed residual glass in her elbow and upper arm, Lam was told not to worry, that scar tissue would form over the glass. But it continued to bother her.
Lam consulted Dr. Milan Stevanovic, an orthopedic surgeon at USC who specializes in the hand. He did his own set of X-rays and tests. “Every single surgeon I had seen up until that point said you can leave the glass in there,” she recalls, “but if you want to take it out, you should also do this thing called ulnar nerve transposition surgery — but then there’s a chance you’ll be worse off, there’s a chance you won’t be able to play again.” In 2008, she saw Dr. Stevanovic again, and he urged her to have the glass removed. “He said, ‘Make an appointment and we’ll talk about it.’” At the time, her HMO would not cover the surgery he suggested, so he generously offered to donate his services.
“She had injured the ulnar nerve, but very fortunately it was not completely severed,” says Dr. Stevanovic. “If that had happened, I wouldn’t have been able to do anything. She’s a very remarkable young lady.” In 2009, he performed the glass-removal operation, which was slated for two hours. It ended up taking twice as long because the doctor discovered a neuroma — an extraneous bundle of nerve tissue — that had developed in her elbow, so he had to work on removing some of that.
Lam acknowledges the support of her parents, friends and colleagues helped the healing process. One of them is noted solo violinist and pianist Ayke Agus, who was the accompanist to legendary violinist Jascha Heifetz for the last 15 years of his life, till 1987. “I heard her undergraduate recital at USC and was amazed at her great talent,” Agus says via email. Agus herself had also studied music performance at USC. “As a person, she is a beautiful human being, and as a musician/pianist, an amazingly gifted, talented artist.”
Lam started studying piano at just 3½. She had two other young cousins who played piano, and it seemed “cool.” At first, her mother was resistant — her daughter seemed far too young to start piano. Then one day she got a phone call from Cindy’s daycare center: The girl was refusing to eat lunch unless she could take piano lessons. Her passion for classical music was such that a few years later, she also took up the violin.
While neither of her parents are musicians — Lam’s father is an engineer — they have been very supportive of her pursuit of classical music. “After I started taking lessons,” Lam says, “they started buying CDs so I could hear the music. I remember one of the CDs we had was Mozart’s Symphonies Nos. 40 and 41. Every night at dinner, I’d go play that CD. That was the dinner CD — Mozart!” Lam laughs at the memory.
As a teen, she attended Polytechnic School in Pasadena, and when it was time to apply for college, she decided to audition in piano because she thought it her stronger suit. Lam was accepted into the music education program at USC, and planned to transfer into the performance program. Then, the second week of freshman year, the accident happened.
Since her graduation from USC in 2007, the number of concerts Lam has been playing has been increasing steadily. In early 2010, she made her professional debut in a chamber music concert with the California String Quartet. She has also participated in chamber music performances in Italy as part of the Zephyr International Chamber Music Festival and at two of L.A.’s most prestigious concert venues: Walt Disney Concert Hall with the USC Thornton Symphony under the baton of Carl St. Clair and UCLA’s Royce Hall with the American Youth Symphony and conductor David Newman. Last March, she became the youngest artist to play in South Pasadena’s Restoration Concerts Series when she performed with violinist Linda Wang, a frequent collaborator with seasoned artists.
Lam also gives private piano lessons. As a teacher, she’s highly regarded; her students include the children of other musicians, such as Katia Popov, concertmaster of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, and Lynn Harrell, an internationally known cellist.
Lam is so dedicated to her art that she spends three hours a day practicing at the keyboard — even more when preparing for a concert. Recently, she received only three weeks’ notice for a concert at a private home with noted Russian violist Konstantin Boyarsky. “Working with Cindy was an absolute delight,” Boyarsky wrote later. “We were very short of time and there were obviously some elements of stress due to that, but Cindy brought a sense of calm and professionalism to her approach in preparing this tricky program.” They tackled a varied and ambitious program that included Astor Piazzolla’s Le Grand Tango, which demanded fast and furious fingering from Lam. She delivered with much poise and finesse. “Performing is the real passion and focus of my life,” she says, “and what I want to be known for.”