A memorable commencement performance by ‘the heart of the Music Department’

Maurissio rehearses his piece at a piano on stage.

It was a large crowd at the Fresno State Concert Hall for a senior recital. Even though Maurissio Rodriguez had just played nearly an hour of challenging piano music by Grieg, Haydn, Brahms, Debussy and Chopin, there was no music on the piano. In fact, the board that holds the music had been completely removed as he played the entire performance from memory. Rodriguez appeared from side stage for the last time, walked to the piano and gave a long bow as the audience of his supporters gave applause.

He invited everyone to sing along as he began a special encore, his interpretation of “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Freddie Mercury.

“Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?”

The crowd began quietly as Rodriguez’ played his version with a clear melody line on the piano, giving the audience confidence to grow louder.

“Mama, oooh. Didn’t mean to make you cry.”

The audience crescendoed to sing with full abandon in a celebration of Rodriguez’s accomplishments. This recital was his, and it aptly ended in a shared celebration of love and care.

“He created the most wonderful experience you can have. The crowd became part of his recital,” said Audrey Rodriguez, administrative support coordinator for the Music Department at Fresno State. “At that very moment, we were one masterpiece.”

Some were nearly in tears as Maurissio Rodriguez stood from the piano with a beaming smile, and gave a long, overtly gestured bow.

“Good night, everybody,” he said in his signature, resounding voice.

Dr. Peter Klimo, assistant professor of piano, described the finale as “a legendary performance that will not soon be forgotten.”

A student’s journey

Anyone who has spent time in the music buildings over the last two years has likely seen or talked to Rodriguez. He is on the autism spectrum, which, he said, affects his social skills. He struggles with poor eye contact, limited vocabulary, controlling the volume of his voice and taking jokes seriously.

Despite this, Rodriguez makes a point to greet everyone he knows with “hello” and stop to have a conversation before ending with, “Have a great day!”

“He is the most compassionate person I have ever met,” Audrey Rodriguez said. “Every morning, he walks into the office to say hello and good morning. The relationship he established with the department is not the typical student and Music Department. It’s more like Maurissio and his extended family.”

Maurissio Rodriguez’s parents immigrated from Guatemala to the Bay Area, where he was born. He went to Piedmont Hills High School in San Jose.

When he was 8 years old, Rodriguez received his first keyboard as a gift and was immediately enthralled. The instrument allowed him to discover he had the gift of “perfect pitch.”

“Perfect pitch is a documented phenomenon in the musical community and is marked by the ability to instantly and effortlessly distinguish the pitch of a tone,” Klimo explained. “For pianists in particular, it is most useful in terms of an additional aid in memory as well as allowing for the ability to recreate music by ear with great ease.”

With the ability to hear songs, then play them with just a short amount of practice, Rodriguez became a “child prodigy” on the piano. But it was more than just natural talent that drew him to the piano. It was also the comfort he finds in the music.

“Music really helps relieve the stress, ease all the loneliness that I’ve often encountered in life,” Rodriguez said. “Music can give you a really intelligent mind. It helps you stay focused.”

That focus has helped Rodriguez excel in his musicianship and schoolwork.

In 2015, in the middle of his junior year of high school, he moved to Fresno. In 2017, he graduated from Clovis East High School, and then attended Fresno City College, where he received his associate’s degree. During the pandemic, he transferred to Fresno State to major in music-instrumental performance (piano).

At Fresno State, Rodriguez has been a prolific performer as a member of the Keyboard Ensemble and the New Music Ensemble. He has also performed original pieces for composition students and as an accompanist for other students’ recitals. He also plays piano and keys for the worship team at Mountain View Church.

Beyond music, Rodriguez has excelled in his studies and now graduates with honors.

“Maurissio has been a model student without exception the entire year I have worked with him,” Klimo said. “His passion for music is infectious, and it makes teaching him one of the most highly enjoyable parts of my week.”

Rodriguez gives a lot of credit to the Services for Students with Disabilities office and the TRiO Student Support Services – Disabilities for his success as a student. They have provided him with a variety of services and moral support.

He said he is especially thankful to access specialist Belen Vera for supporting his educational journey. He is also grateful to Priscilla GilletteBerg, Cynthia Ramirez and Paige Olson and all the other staff he has worked with.

“These humans really mean so much to me,” Rodriguez said. “They were always there for me when I really needed help. Without them, I wouldn’t have made it to where I am today.”

Rodriguez is a recipient of the Music Department scholarship and the Mary Renning Phillips Piano scholarship.

“Maurissio is the heart of the Music Department,” Audrey Rodriguez said. “He is a person with motivation, and passion, and he has music running through his veins. He is someone to look up to because he keeps pushing forward, not losing sight of goals.”

Finale

With tassels turned at the 2023 College of Arts and Humanities Commencement ceremony, an ensemble of choral graduates sang the alma mater. As their last note reverberated through the Save Mart Center, Rodriguez began his rendition of “We Are the Champions” by Freddie Mercury, but something was wrong. 

“I’ve done my sentence, but committed no crime.”

As the president, dean, and the rest of the platform party left the stage, Rodriguez struggled in the largest performance of his life. With frustration growing, the performance melted down.

“It’s in the wrong key!” he exclaimed in frustration as he fiddled with the knobs on the electric piano. 

The instrument had been jostled in transport, and the “transpose” setting was stuck. Anyone without the gift of perfect pitch would be unable to notice the difference, but Rodriguez knew the notes were wrong, causing him to struggle with the performance.

His friends in the music department, who had just left the stage, shouted their encouragement as he turned the keyboard off, then back on, quickly fixing the problem. 

“Okay,” he shouted. “Here. We. Go!”

Just as he had done in the struggles throughout his life, in that moment, Rodriguez overcame. 

“I’ve had my share of sand kicked in my face, but I’ve come through.”

Amid cheers, the crowd of fellow graduates, parents, friends and loved ones joined in singing.

“And we mean to go on and on and on and on.”

The crowd crescendoed. 

“We are the champions, my friends. And we’ll keep on fighting till the end.”

Even as Rodriguez moves on to the next chapter of his life as a college graduate who became a champion, the impact he leaves at Fresno State will continue to inspire.

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Fresno State College of Arts and Humanities Communication Specialist

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