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Omaha Magazine

Sarah Fernandes is Redefining Play Time

Sep 22, 2023 04:21PM ● By Sara Locke
Sarah Fernandes gen o

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

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“I have always loved music.” Sharmila Braganza explained. “When I was growing up in India, I didn’t have the opportunity to play an instrument, but I was always surrounding myself with music. I would listen to whatever I could, and I would sing. That was my instrument. My dad sang in a choir, and he was very musically and artistically talented, but circumstances were different for us.”

Now living in Omaha with her husband Praveen and their three daughters, Sharmila finds that opportunities for excellence are anywhere her family nourishes them.

“When my older daughters wanted to learn piano, I didn’t hesitate. Rachel and Hannah are 16 months apart, and I put them in lessons together under Mirela Mlynska.” Sharmila said. “I loved listening to them play and practice, so I would bring their one-and-a-half-year-old sister, Sarah, with me and we would sit in on their classes. Then in the summer of 2013 we bought our piano for the girls to practice and play at home.”

When Sharmila would prepare dinner for her family, she would happily listen as her daughters practiced what they had been learning with Ms. Mlynska. Then one day, she heard a new song being plucked out slowly, yet melodically, on the piano. She came into the room to find her toddler on her tippy toes, trying to play just like her two big sisters. 

“Sarah has a very special gift. By age 2 she was playing the songs her sisters had learned, just by watching them and listening.” Sharmila said. “She has what you would call ‘perfect pitch.’ We started her in lessons when she was four, but by 2, she was already playing by ear.”

“I just really loved hearing my sisters play, and I loved the sound the piano was producing,” Sarah added. 

The 11-year-old now takes virtual lessons with Dr. Washington Garcia Eljuri, who was the founding Director of the School of Music at the University of Nebraska Omaha when he first met Sarah, and who currently serves as the Dean of the School of Music at Stetson University in Florida. 

The pint-sized prodigy is poised and well-spoken, but the true gift is that through her parents’ and instructors’ careful guidance, she maintains a balanced enough schedule to enjoy being a mostly typical pre-teen. 

“I love my cat!” Sarah exclaimed, before correcting herself with a giggle, “Ok, he’s actually a stray, but we look after him and we named him ‘Tuffy’, because he’s so tough! And I love listening to music. And I really like to read. I’m reading a book called Out of My Mind right now. It’s about a girl around my age who can’t talk, but she’s actually really smart and people don’t know it. I like reading about girls my age.”

Being a bibliophile serves as excellent practice for Sarah’s other performative passion: competitive spelling. The sixth grader spent her summer juggling the Texas State International Piano Festival, where she attended masterclasses with world-renowned artists Marina Lomazov and Michelle Cann from the Curtis Institute of Music, and the Scripps National Spelling Bee. 

“I think that the two are kind of connected. When you’re a pianist, you have to be able to perform on stage with everyone looking at you and listening closely for any mistakes. That’s the same confidence you need to perform well at a spelling bee, whether it’s at school or qualifying rounds or at Scripps,” Sarah noted.

Sarah was the youngest participant in this year’s event, and finished tied for tenth place. 
“I was really proud, and it was so amazing to be on the stage this year instead of just watching,” she continued. “I could feel how proud everyone was of me, and that makes practicing and competing so much fun.”

The national stage is a lot for any competitor, but Sarah was no stranger when it came to prize-winning performances. At the age of 9, she took home first prize from the Charleston International Music Competition in the Romantic Division. The following year saw her performing at the American Protégé International Piano Competition, which earned her a debut at New York’s Carnegie Weill Recital Hall. She was recently invited to perform at the Holland Performing Arts Center, celebrating Project Harmony’s 25th Anniversary Gala. 

“It was a fundraiser, and I performed to help Project Harmony help a lot of children.” Sarah said. “I was able to share the spotlight with child music prodigies and it was a really amazing time!”
It would be intimidating to ask such an accomplished girl what she wants to do with her life, but when asked what her future holds, she didn’t skip a beat. 

“A concert pianist, or a piano teacher. I’m a little too young to think too much about the future, but whatever it is, I hope it will involve piano,” Sarah affirmed. “I love music, and getting to share it with others is a really wonderful gift!” 

To hear some of Sarah’s original compositions, and to see past performances, follow her on YouTube @sarahfernandespiano

This article originally appeared in the October 2023 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  

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