Marco Flores fell in love with the piano at the age of nine when a classical pianist came to the little town of Juncos, Puerto Rico, where his father was a Baptist minister to accompany a cantata.
He had heard the instrument plenty of times before, in his father’s church and in tourist settings where it was used to play popular music, but something about the quality of the cantata performance and the character of the music struck a spark in him that still burns bright today. “I never knew the piano could be played like that,” said Flores, who was recently selected as instructor for the Vero Beach Opera’s new piano scholarship program.
The program will provide weekly instruction for talented students 6 to 18 who are committed to learning the piano but lack the money for private lessons.
“The piano has always been closely linked with opera, and our organization has been supportive of young musical talent since its beginning,” said Dr. Joan Ortega-Cowan, president of Vero Beach Opera.
Flores, an accomplished concert pianist who has been worship arts director at Christ by the Sea Methodist Church since 2004, brings a deep appreciation of the student-teacher relationship as well as a doctoral degree in music to his new task.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in music at the Conservatorio de Música de Puerto Rico, where he studied with Rubén Malán and Luz N. Hutchinson, Flores left his home and family in 1990 to continue his piano studies in the United States.
“There was no place for higher musical education in Puerto Rico at that time so I had to take a boat or a plane and come to the states,” said Flores.
Arriving in New York City, he had the good fortune to be accepted as a private student by Nina Svetlanova, who he calls “one of the best piano teachers in New York City.”
Svetlanova, a former opera coach at the Bolshoi Theater and a professor of piano at New York’s Manhattan School of Music, helped Flores prepare for an audition that got him into the Eastman School of Music at Rochester University where he studied with Barry Snyder and earned a master’s degree in piano performance and literature.
“A lot of my piano formation was greatly influenced by this world famous Russian concert pianist and piano teacher.” Flores said. “Many of her teachings are the ones I still use for me and my students.”
From Eastman, Flores went on to Arizona State University where he studied solo piano performance with Caio Pagano and was awarded a doctor of musical arts degree in 2004.
Flores says he has had more than 10 teachers of varying nationalities who have been important to his performing career and teaching style.
“I began to teach piano as soon as I began to study it in order to support myself,” said Flores, who has private students in Vero Beach ranging in age from 8 to 87. “I always had at least two side jobs, teaching and performing. The first thing I did when I got to New York City was find a church where I could be a part-time music director.”
Flores said his professors at ASU were shocked when he told them he planned to seek employment in a church setting after earning his doctorate.
“You should have seen their faces,” Flores said. “They asked me why I wanted to waste my life and talent in a church. It made me very sad, because unfortunately that is reputation today that churches in general have – as places where musicians are going to waste their talents.
“Centuries ago in the time of composers like Bach, the church was a Mecca of music. That is where people from the secular world went to learn music. Part of my dream is to try to help slowly but surely to bring that back, to try to elevate the level of music in churches.”
That is just what Flores has done in seven years at Christ by the Sea where a 400-person congregation supports an amazing array of musical groups and programs.
“I am very grateful to the church and pastors for supporting the music program,” said Flores. “When I came here, the church did not have many musical items and our budget was very small but we started a fundraising campaign that allowed us to buy a Steinway grand piano and enlarge the chancel area to make room for more instruments and versatility. That piano has helped transform and shape the whole worship arts program in this church. It allowed us to invite visiting artists and start a concert series.”
Tickets to the well-attended series, which just finished its fifth season, go for $20 but Flores said the caliber of talent performing would cost $80 or $90 to see in New York City.
There is a large, well-equipped music teaching and rehearsal room at Christ by the Sea and church members participate in nine singing, instrumental and liturgical dance groups.
The Sunday morning service, held at 10 a.m. during the summer season, is highly musical, with two violins, one flute, one baritone, trombone, clarinet, timpani, organ, piano and choir.
“Music has become one of our primary ministries,” says Senior Pastor Rev. Clifford Melvin. “It is an important part of our outreach ministry and a huge part of our worship. I have been doing this for 30 years and have worked with some very talented people and in my opinion Marcos is one of the most effective worship leaders anywhere. There is a wonderful wholeness about him. He has both musical talent and the absolute heart for the people and for Jesus that is just this marvelous combination. He is a very special person.”
“My job is to bring people closer to God,” said Flores. “Like Bach, I feel music is a gift of God and this is our way of returning the talents he has given us.”
Flores, who sold his car after college in order to afford piano lessons with Svetlanova, said he is “very humbled” by the opportunity to teach the opera scholarship students and views it as a personal ministry to the young people to whom he will be passing on his hard won knowledge.
“A piano teacher becomes like a member of the family,” Flores said. “He has to diagnose the student’s personality in order to understand their goals and teach effectively. We are not necessarily looking for the next Mozart with the scholarship students, but we are doing a benefit to a soul by providing musical education that will help them in school and life and give them an opportunity to fulfill their musical dreams.”