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Another story to tell

Emmy Award-winning pianist Lisa Downing scores the soundtrack of human experience.

June 26, 2019

By Cora Zaletel

It should come as no surprise that the song that earned Lisa Seville Downing her second Emmy Award was originally about telling bedtime stories to her son. The top-five New Age Billboard solo pianist is a storyteller at heart who interprets the human experience with the keys beneath her fingers.

While the 1982 graduate of Metropolitan State University of Denver hesitates to pick favorites among her compositions – because she considers them her children – she admits to being most attached to that award-winning song, “The Dragon Within.”

“It started as the story of a dragon named Jasper,” Downing says. “But later, I realized that the power and energy of the dragon I had created was within me.”

She wasn’t the only one who recognized the power inherent in the song. It became part of the score for a Rocky Mountain PBS film series called “Saving the Soul of Denver,” which told the stories of Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame inductees. In March 2018, the series earned an Emmy for Best Music Composition/Arrangement.

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Downing credits MSU Denver for propelling her into the career of her dreams. But not in the way you might expect – the most significant lessons she learned on campus didn’t have to do with music.

She created a unique contract major in traditional and nontraditional music with a keyboard emphasis that included a majority of coursework at MSU Denver supplemented with classes from University of Colorado Denver. A degree committee made up of professors from both schools approved the classes to be included and the actual degree title.

She says the negotiation skills she learned from that experience prepared her to manage performance contracts for herself and the more than 1,200 performers she represents through her company Vision Quest Entertainment.

Lisa Downing
Lisa Downing's Emmy Award-winning song, "The Dragon Within," was part of the score for a Rocky Mountain PBS film series called "Saving the Soul of Denver," which told the stories of Colorado Women's Hall of Fame inductees. Photo by John Arnold

“Over the years, that work has funded my efforts to become the pianist I am today,” she says.

And she has certainly become an extraordinary pianist, and an even better storyteller, as evidenced by the national acclaim she has received for her work.

Downing’s 2017 Emmy-winning composition, “The Torii Gates,” was inspired by a story she heard about a Japanese fishing village called Hachinohe. The village’s sacred gates were designed to impede evil spirits and ensure the safety of the town’s fishermen on dangerous seas. In 2011, the village was devastated by a powerful earthquake and tsunami, and the gates were swept away. Months later, they washed ashore on the Oregon coast and were taken to the Portland Japanese Gardens, where they were repaired and later returned to the village.

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Winning Emmy Awards would top most musicians’ list of accomplishments. But Downing is even more proud of raising a successful son while being a single mother.

Now 30, her son is a certified behavioral interventionist who works with people across the autism spectrum. He recently encouraged her to leave a legacy by getting the entire catalog of her work (48 songs and four CDs) transcribed. She is amazed by how different her compositions sound when played by musicians using sheet music versus performing them with knowledge of the stories behind them.

Downing’s success story continues with a Japanese tour in 2020. She also hopes her future might hold a third Emmy and first Oscar. Her work for another Rocky Mountain PBS collaboration, “Marilyn Van Derbur Atler: An Incest Survivor’s Odyssey,” recently earnedtop honors at the Los Angeles Film Awards.

Carnegie Hall may be the dream concert venue for many musicians. But as a Colorado native, Downing aspires to one day hear her music bounce off the sandstone monoliths at Red Rocks Amphitheatre, giving her yet another  story to tell.

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