In November 2018, Sonya Bandouil and her boyfriend Alex Pankiewicz took a weekend vacation to Boston. At the trip’s end, they stopped at a café on their way to the train station before returning to New York.
“I was looking at the menu for, like, a few minutes. And then, and then, yeah. I guess it was all under this façade thing of building, and all of a sudden it just fell,” Bandouil recalls of the freak accident that trapped her underneath a rubble of bricks in the blink of an eye. Her boyfriend and bystanders helped take the debris off her before she was rushed to the hospital.
“I had a lot of, like, internal bleeding, and the doctor had six hours, pretty much, really to just make sure that I stayed alive. So, he really had no idea if I was going to be paralyzed or if I was going to have brain damage or anything,” Bandouil says. The accident resulted in a two-week coma, nine surgeries, 21 broken bones, and a three-month hospital stay in Boston.
Her right hand was crushed; her middle finger gone.
A particularly devastating injury for a young classical pianist who had studied at the University of Houston Moores School of Music.
The Trip to UH and Moores
When she was searching for the right school to study piano performance, Bandouil prioritized location. She wanted to leave Dallas, but also stay in Texas. A trip down Interstate 45 would guide her to the University of Houston, home of the Moores School of Music.
“I really loved the city when I visited. And Tali seemed like a great teacher,” says Bandouil. In the Fall of 2013, Bandouil began studying in Houston underneath the tutelage of Dr. Tali Morgulis, Associate Professor of Piano at Moores and Co-chair of the piano area.
While at UH, Bandouil studied repertoire written by some of her favorite composers Chopin and Rachmaninoff – including his relentlessly vicious Prelude in G minor, Op. 23 No. 5.
“That was a monster,” says Bandouil. “It was really a big challenge. Like, I did it with Tali. And it was a lot of, like, just going back and forth because there’s, you just have to keep up the high energy throughout the whole piece, and you get so tired because the chords are so fast and you’re like, ‘Oh God, I need a break.’”
Bandouil’s musical experience on campus entailed other genres; she and her friend, violinist Rachel Warden, started a YouTube channel for their renditions of popular songs such as Adele’s “Hello,” Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks,” and Major Lazer & DJ Snake’s “Lean On.”
“We shared a lot of the same, just like, values I guess, and became really close. And we would do these piano and violin covers of songs,”says Warden, whose favorite quality about Bandouil’s musicianship is of the soul.
“She comes across as not a very emotional person. She’s very, like, level headed, like, when she talks. And how she deals with problems, she’s very rational. But then when she plays piano it’s very, you know, it’s very emotional. There’s lots of contrast, depth to it, and you’re like, ‘Wow - who is this person?’” says Warden.
After graduating in 2017, Bandouil moved to New York City, where she taught piano lessons and studied international relations at NYU.
Following the Accident
“Pretty much every part of my body was, like, fractured and broken in some way. And then, the hand, yeah they told me about that later on," Bandouill says.
“At first, I was just really kind of adamant about not playing because I was just really in shock and just, you know, kind of freaked out about everything.”
About a month and a half after the accident, a music therapist brought a keyboard to Bandouil. She began playing simple Beatles tunes before working her way up to Bach’s Minuet in G Major.
“I didn’t even bother with any of my, you know, rep that I was at before because it was, it was just a really weird feeling to try it again,” says Bandouil.
When Rachel Warden flew to Boston to visit Bandouil, Warden brought Bandouil a copy of Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. Still, it wasn’t an easy visit for Warden, who says she cried seeing Bandouil in the hospital.
“I just felt like, like, it was just crazy, like, to think of someone so pure of heart and like, I mean, no one deserves that to happen to them,” says Warden. “The way she was handling it - she was so positive and she put on such a brave face. And like, so, I just got emotional about it because I felt, my heart broke for her, and I also knew she was upset about what had happened. And I was, you know, I didn’t want her to feel alone or, like, you know, like everything was over for her.”
After three months of rehab in Boston, Bandouil moved into her parents’ Frisco, Texas home, where her daily routine consists primarily of physical therapy. Bandouil says she went back to basics, relearning how to walk, eat, use a pencil, wash her hair, type on a laptop, and play piano.
“For piano, it was really frustrating ‘cause like, that was also kind of, like, second nature to me. It’s something that I just grew up doing all the time. So, you know, again - to even think about the fact that I’m going to have to retrain my brain to, like, play in a completely different finger pattern, and you know, all of this, it was just a really big shock,” says Bandouil. “It’s getting easier I guess with time.”
Bandouil retrained her right hand to play a C Major scale with a new finger pattern, but playing the scale with both hands presents new challenges.
“It’s not symmetrical anymore. So, the left hand still has all the fingers, but the right hand doesn’t. So, it’s like you have to also retrain the symmetry. Like, it’s just a lot of stuff to redo.”
The Work Still to be Done
Since moving back to Texas, Bandouil reconnected with her Dallas-area teacher, who recommended etudes to help her rebuild her technique, and her UH piano professor Dr. Tali Morgulis, who recommended a prelude for left hand by Scriabin.
“There’s a body of work written for the left hand because there were several pianists who lost their, either the sensitivity or the ability of their right hand. So, there, there are quite a few pieces written for the left hand alone,” says Morgulis.
When it comes to her new right hand, Bandouil recalls experiencing moments of phantom limb syndrome, or feeling sensations in a missing limb.
“I’ll try to play something and I feel as though my third finger, it wants to play something. Like, it jolts physically to do it. But, like, it’s not there,” says Bandouil. “It’s kind of like, panic too because, you know, it’s like ‘What’s going on? Where is it?’”
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Morgulis recently taught a course at UH about music and the brain. She says that although the class didn’t focus on physical trauma like Bandouil’s, it touched on it.
“Part of the material that we’re talking about is the brain plasticity. And how [the] brain rewires itself to coordinate whatever body parts we have when something is missing or something is not working. The brain is capable of rewiring and getting the most out of the coordination of whatever we do have,” says Morgulis, who believes there are three roads a musician can take following an instance like Bandouil’s.
First, the performer can recover and return to the stage. Second, they can become depressed and retreat from audiences. Third, the path Morgulis believes Bandouil will take, they can use it as a transformative experience that makes them reevaluate who they are and what music means to them.
“Sonya is a very strong, open minded, and flexible person. So, I see her emerging. I don’t know if it’s happening yet or not, but I strongly believe it will. I see her emerging on the other side of it with more strength and something really, really - interesting sort of turn in her life. I don’t know what it’s going to be but I have this very, very strong feeling that she will turn it into some kind of growth, inspiration kind of thing. Something will change. Instead of her losing part of her life she will sort of gain something from it.”