Once homeless, a University of West Florida piano student will perform in New York

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(Pensacola News Journal) -- Though James Matthews has seen his share of ups and downs throughout his life, his passion for piano has remained steadfast.

Before Matthews began studying piano in the University of West Florida, he was a homeless college student at Florida Southern College in Central Florida, sometimes sleeping in his instructor's piano studio for shelter.

Now, the 24-year-old has plans to graduate with a Bachelor of Music degree from UWF in 2015, but first he has an important stop to make: Carnegie Hall.

Matthews is set to play the Weill Recital Hall at the world-renowned New York City concert venue on April 20. The opportunity is his prize as honorable mention winner in the 2014 American Protege International Piano and Strings Competition.

So how did Matthews get to Carnegie Hall?

The most recent chapter of that story started after he submitted a video of himself performing Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev's "Piano Sonata No. 7" to the online competition in January. He entered the competition at the suggestion of his instructor at UWF, Heidi Salanki.

"We were thrilled," Matthews said of the news that he placed. "When we entered the competition, it was just taking a risk to see what would happen. (Salanki) was really happy for me, but she made sure I started practicing even more."

That's a tall order, even for a diehard musician like Matthews, who already practices hours a day. But then again, he's no stranger to overcoming obstacles.

Matthews said his music career began at 3 years old in the tiny Central Florida town of Wauchula. His father would teach him lessons about the blues and jazz.

It wasn't until middle school that playing the piano struck a chord in Matthews. He stopped learning from his father, got a professional instructor and began playing for his school's choir.

"I started reading and listening to everything I could get my hands on about piano, and it kind of just grew from there," he said.

Things took a turn for the worse for Matthews after he graduated high school. He found himself homeless for nearly a year and a half, but he kept studying piano at Florida Southern College.

It was there that his instructor found him sleeping in the school's 24-hour piano studio one night. The professor found Matthews a place to stay temporarily, then used his connections to get the young student enrolled in Chipola College in Marianna, where Matthews could afford to stay in a dorm.

Matthews earned his associate degree from Chipola College and transferred to UWF to finish his undergraduate degree. He said he plans to go to graduate school for piano, then hopes to earn his doctorate degree for the instrument.

Bill Dollarhide, owner of Dollarhide's Music Center in Pensacola, has known Matthews for two years.

"James is an incredibly talented young pianist," Dollarhide said. "He plays classical piano like a professional, and that's why he's been chosen to play Carnegie Hall."

Playing Carnegie Hall opens the door to other places, he added.

"This will give James the opportunity to play music venues around the country. Everyone respects a Carnegie Hall performance."

Matthews credits his love for the piano as what kept him going through his darkest days.

"I always had my piano, and it's always been my escape," he said. "I decided if I never gave up it would get me through life, and it has. I don't know where I'd be if it wasn't for music."

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