Pieces of a Puzzle

Forces converge to change the life of a teenage musician

By Aaron Ragan-Fore

Growing up as the middle of three sisters in an impoverished neighborhood of Olinda, Brazil, Priscilla Dantas felt herself assailed on all sides by gangs, violence, and the drug trade. Her life was full of arguments with neighbors, last-minute household moves to avoid trouble, and some creative rewiring to “borrow” electricity from power lines.

With parents who had limited schooling, young Priscilla thought her options were limited, her aspirations and dreams extending only as far as she could see out her window. “I thought about just selling clothes in a store,” she says.
But the innate talent Dantas was cultivating in Brazil, coupled with a little behind-the-scenes networking thousands of miles away in Eugene, Oregon, served as a recipe for transforming not only Dantas’ fortunes, but those of her family.

Early successes

Priscilla Dantas had always enjoyed music, and at seven years of age was singing in a local choir. The family lived in a house behind the Centro de Educação Musical de Olinda, a music conservatory.

When she was ten, Priscilla’s father Jaelson Dantas began working there as a security guard. Dantas used to sneak into the building at night, while her father was working, to practice on the conservatory’s pianos.

At age eleven she won a local music competition as well as a scholarship to the prestigious Conservatório Pernambucano de Música in the neighboring town of Recife.

Dantas also began receiving scholar­ship support from Students Helping Street Kids International (SHSKI), a Brazil-America Sister Schools project based in Eugene, Oregon. This organization further expanded her worldview. During the next four years, Dantas’ burgeoning skill led to several appearances on the local television news, and then, at age fourteen, to an appearance in a na­tionally televised concert performing a Mozart concerto alongside the local symphony orchestra.
As a teenager, Dantas began to dream of being a leader, of living a musical life. For the first time, her dreams extended beyond Recife, maybe even beyond Brazil. All the same, she was unsure of what her next steps should be. 

Next steps

One day in 2007, Bob Crites, president of Students Helping Street Kids International, stopped by the UO School of Music and Dance armed with DVDs of Priscilla performing. He wondered whether there might be a place for his young friend at the school. UO piano technician Alan Phillips passed the recordings along to Alexandre Dossin, associate professor of piano and a fellow Brazilian.

Dossin notes that Dantas’ progression on the sequential DVDs, from playing a few simple pieces at age ten to performing with the orchestra at fourteen, demonstrates “extremely fast improvement, to be able to perform a whole concerto by memory, with an orchestra, after only a few years of piano lessons.”

“Most importantly,” Dossin adds, “I noticed her natural phrasing and musicality.”

Dossin immediately arranged for Dantas to visit Oregon and the UO campus, a watershed moment for Dantas. “To go to another country was not even in my dreams or in my plans,” she says.

“I didn’t even know what a university was until I was fifteen,” Dantas adds. “I still had my reality of living in a very high crime city, with drug dealers all around us.”

Dantas, now a music major in her sophomore year, is a musician that her mentor Dossin describes as “a very sincere and warm performer, with a natural feeling for musical phrasing” in the works of Bach and Chopin she so cherishes.
“I have many more opportunities here, and opportunities to help my family,” says Dantas. “We have been through so many hard situations that it’s surreal to my mother that she can now say, ‘My daughter is in the United States, studying the piano.’”

Despite her successes, Dantas’ life in the United States would not be possible without financial help. She is the recipient of a Ruth Lorraine Close Scholarship, which is funded by a gift to the UO School of Music and Dance. In the past year, thirty-four students like Dantas have received support from the fund.

Don’t mistake this for a free ride, however. Dantas supports herself by performing in churches, retirement centers, wineries, and private home concerts. She also works as a resident advisor in her UO residence hall.
With her graduation little more than two years distant, Dantas is already gearing up for her next big life change—whatever it may be. She certainly wants to continue her education through the doctoral level, but is unsure whether she wants to teach, perform, or combine the two.

Whatever her future holds, Dantas knows that the UO School of Music and Dance has been an integral part of it. “The passion for music is what has motivated me throughout the years,” she says. “I’m really grateful for everybody who has formed this puzzle that has continued to bring me here, all these pieces that come together to make it possible.”

If you’d like to make a gift or bequest to assist students like Priscilla, contact the development office of the School of Music and Dance at 541-346-3859 or at somd@uoregon.edu.