Academics Arts and Humanities

Finding his groove at the piano—and on the financial stage

From music to money, Joseph Chica renews his life’s passion and finds a new one at the University of Miami.
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Pianist Joseph Chica and his guide dog, Gunner, are off to graduate school in finance. 

An accomplished pianist who composed his first album in high school, Joseph Chica enrolled in the Frost School of Music three years ago hoping to write music for movies one day.

After all, film scores always enabled Chica, who has been nearly blind since birth, to envision the stories unfolding on screen. So who better to compose music that conveys the narrative and emotions of a movie than a musician who sees his world through sound?

But Chica, who is set to graduate this week from the University of Miami with a double major in music and political economics, plans to pursue a graduate degree in finance and a career in financial services instead. Not because he has forsaken music, but because the University, particularly his job on the Student Technology Help Desk, helped him find a better way to infuse music in his life—and a new passion that holds the promise of a more secure future.

“When I was a kid I said I was going to be a stockbroker, but I had no idea what that even meant,” Chica said. “No idea. Now I’m back in the stockbroker realm, which I find hilarious.’’

Humor is as much a staple of Chica’s life as confidence. The Miami native, whose hereditary disease causes progressive vision loss, recalls his gaffes, like the time he sat on a stranger’s lap during one of his regular workouts at the Wellness Center, with laughter. He doesn’t hesitate to step outside his comfort zone.

“I’ve never told myself that there is something I can’t do,” he said, shortly after playing Debussy’s “Arabesque No. 1” for his piano studio class, his guide dog, Gunner, at his feet.

Chica didn’t begin playing the piano until he was in eighth grade, a talent he learned by memorizing every note of every piece he plays. He still uses that rigorous method, which he and Marita Valdes, the first piano instructor who was willing to teach him, devised nine years ago.

But soon after arriving at the University, Chica found himself having to re-evaluate his life plan, and one of his greatest joys. Surrounded by other aspiring Frost School musicians, he began to realize how competitive, saturated, and demanding the professional music world is. Suddenly, playing the piano brought him more angst than pleasure.

“I like the emotional connection to music, the storytelling, and the challenge of learning it, but I was getting to the point where playing became less about expression and more about completion and I wasn’t enjoying it anymore," Chica recalled. "And I was not okay with that."

So he took a step back from music, changing his end goal to playing for himself, and learning pieces that challenged him—“without the added pressure of making money off of it, or establishing a career. And then I was able to get back to that relationship with music.”

That’s not to say Chica, the subject of a forthcoming documentary about the Miami Lighthouse for the Blind, where he has long been an active client, wasn’t interested in money. To the contrary, he was fascinated by money, the economy, and the ups and downs of the stock market, and threw himself into learning everything he could about it. He listened to countless videos about finance and investing, consumed financial news, started managing his own portfolio, and learned that he was quite good at that.

“I started making money and once you have money in it you are really invested,” he said.

He derived his initial investments from his part-time job helping fellow students set up their Wi-Fi and game consoles, resolve printing and network-access problems, or a myriad of other front-end computer issues. Since Chica has always relied on computers and software for the visually impaired to navigate a sighted world, it’s something else he’s quite good at. As he jokes, “I can literally do it with my eyes closed.”

But the job also taught him how much he enjoys helping other people, which led him to his goal of working in the financial services or investment banking sectors analyzing trends or managing portfolios, or perhaps in academia teaching financial literacy to high schoolers or college students.

“I got the job because I just needed a job, but it’s probably been the most rewarding part of my time here,” Chica said. “That’s where I learned responsibility and time management and a lot of things I really enjoy. You never know who’s going to walk in the door and I learned that I actually love answering phones because you don’t need to see to be good at working over the phone.”

As he looks to the future, Chica has no regrets about his journey at UM, although sometimes he wishes he could erase part of his public profile. He has been the subject of several news stories, especially after the release of “See Through the Music,” his ten-track album of original romantic/classical compositions, and he worries prospective employers will pass on his application after they Google his name and read the three words that usually accompany it: blind since birth.

Which both his current boss and piano teacher know would be a huge mistake.

“He’s very impressive—one of my best, hardest working, most dependable employees,” said Brian Vazquez, supervisor of the student help desk. “He doesn’t let anything get in the way of his job. He picks up everything very quickly. He’s got a great personality. He can do whatever he wants.”

Added his Frost School piano instructor Yianni Iliadis: “He is amazing. Once he memorizes a piece, it’s there forever and he does it very quickly, which is a huge advantage as a pianist because you can’t take your music on stage. But he’s very well-rounded and talented in many ways. He’s open to new challenges and can discuss and do almost anything.’’