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Missing Left Hand Doesn't Stop University Piano Student

SHAWNEE, Okla. (AP) _ No one ever told Ryan Huling that his missing left hand would stop him from pursuing his dreams. But people did tell him he could do whatever he set his mind to, then they sat back to watch it happen.

Huling, who is finishing up his sophomore year at Oklahoma Baptist University, is a piano performance major. He was born without his left hand. While still in his mother's womb, the umbilical cord wrapped around his wrist, and the hand couldn't be saved. But what some people might define as a tremendous loss, Huling claims as an even bigger blessing.

``A lot of people think it would be bad not having a hand, but God has blessed me to his glory,'' Huling said. ``I have a great family that's supportive and encouraging. They never said I couldn't do anything. If you have someone who loves you so much and is always there for you, you can't really get down. And when tough times do get you down, you ask God for strength to keep going.''

Huling grew up in Decatur, Texas, where he discovered the piano around age 9 after he saw a friend playing. He asked his mother for lessons, and soon he was learning his way around the keys. His first piano teacher wrote music for him with most of the notes for the right hand and one note for the left.

Soon, Huling was playing more advanced pieces and furthered his skills with another teacher. He began playing at church, in hymn festivals, with 10-piano ensembles and at contests. Even without left-hand fingers, he was playing more and more bass clef notes. All the while, his love for the piano grew as the barriers diminished.

``I didn't see why anything could stop me. I even learned how to jump rope by putting one end of the rope here,'' he said, pointing to the crook of his left arm.

As his high school years were ending, Huling began to seriously consider piano as a major in college. He knew it was important to pursue something he loved, he said, and he felt God had given him a gift that he needed to grow and share. He decided on OBU and soon found himself involved with Chopin and Bach to an extent he'd never known.

Dr. Ron Lewis is Huling's adviser and primary professor at OBU. Huling is instinctively musical, Lewis said, and simply doesn't view himself as one-handed.

``When he auditioned for us, we honestly couldn't tell he didn't have five fingers on his left hand,'' Lewis said. ``Ryan has never known anything different. We have to adapt the music to a certain degree, but his left hand is amazingly versatile.''

Lewis said they pick music for Huling without octaves or chords in the left hand, or pieces where some notes can be shifted to his right hand. Even so, the musical element of the piece is never sacrificed, Lewis said.

Just as Huling doesn't see himself at a disadvantage, neither does the music department treat him any differently, Lewis said. When he's a bit lazy, he gets the same nudge as everyone else and the same encouragement for a job well done.

``He has never once said, 'I can't do this,''' Lewis said. ``He's really coming alive. He sees what discipline at the piano can do for him. I have a great deal of respect for him.''

Huling is now preparing for his juries, the memorization and performance of three or four pieces at the end of the semester for a grade. A piece from Mozart, two preludes from Bach and a Debussy work are his major tasks. Huling said he loves the classical repertoire and sitting down to learn a new piece. He practices several hours a day, sometimes breaking it into chunks of time so he retains his focus.

Huling may be all about Bach during the day, but at night he takes on more of a rock perspective. He's a member of the band North, comprised of five OBU sophomores. Huling plays the keyboard for this group that melds several musical influences for a big, ambient sound. North recently performed at the Bricktown Brewery in Oklahoma City. Huling also has tried out his songwriting talents with North by writing the piano part to join guitars, bass and drums.

His career plans aren't set in stone, but Huling said he's considering graduate school in piano.
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