Durham News

Nassib Nassar plays (and works) the keyboards

Nassib Nassar, shown at his home in Durham, won the 2014 American Prize in Piano Performance.
Nassib Nassar, shown at his home in Durham, won the 2014 American Prize in Piano Performance. jleonard@newsobserver.com

Keyboards of various sorts are very big in Nassib Nassar’s world. He works a computer keyboard in his primary occupation, as computer scientist at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Howard W. Odum Institute for Research in Social Science. But he also plays the 88 keys of a piano keyboard with superb skill.

“There’s always been tension between piano and computers my whole life,” Nassar said. “But I’ve never allowed either to win completely.”

Lately, he’s becoming especially renowned for music. Nassar won the 2014 American Prize in Piano Performance, which conveyed what he called “a modest monetary reward” – and the satisfaction of being in some impressive company.

“The other winners are all pretty serious pianists,” Nassar said. “I think that’s the nicest thing about it, to be in the company of people who have devoted their whole lives to music.”

His story

Nassar, 42, grew up in Durham as the child of Lebanese immigrants, with his father serving as role model on multiple fronts. A pediatric-cardiology researcher at Duke Medical Center, the elder Nassar was also a serious musician and his son’s first piano teacher (although that was short-lived).

“My father always played piano, and I would listen to him,” Nassar said. “I remember when I was little, slipping in and hiding under the piano while he played. I started playing myself at age 5 and my father tried to teach me, but that lasted just one lesson.”

After that, Nassar taught himself to play piano by ear and later studied with professor Francis Whang at UNC-Chapel Hill before dropping out. But even though he never did get his college degree, Nassar did find his profession during his three years at UNC.

What pays the bills

A precocious sort, Nassar was programming calculators and computers at the ripe old age of 7. By the time he was 12, young Nassar was writing, publishing and even selling appointment-reminder software.

“My dad would help me publish them and people would buy them,” Nassar said. “Checks would come from Japan, Europe, all over the world.”

At UNC, Nassar happened to be in the right place at the right time when he did a computer-science internship with computer guru Paul Jones. The World Wide Web was taking shape, and Nassar was among its architects, creating one of the earliest open-source search engines (Isearch) in 1994.

Nassar has been a player in the computer field ever since. Nowadays, his primary function is to provide computer support for researchers in a wide variety of fields.

“All science now is computerized,” he said. “Astronomers don’t look through telescopes so much as analyze databases collected from telescopes. I enjoy working with people in different fields, whether political science or genomics.”

What feeds the soul

Even though he’s never made a living as a musician, Nassar has never stopped playing music. His favorites are the old-school classics – Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Schubert. And in both his lives, scientific and artistic, Nassar has always learned by trial and error.

“I have an unconventional self-education,” he said. “Before I even started school, I had a microscope my dad gave me, and I’d go into the backyard and find things to look at. I thought that was the way to learn things, hands-on. I’ve always seemed to learn best in an unstructured way, which is probably why I’ve been more successful at things I didn’t study formally.”

Last year, Nassar recorded Brahms’ “F Minor Sonata” to release on compact disc – “just to do something more ambitious than put audioclips on a website,” he said – and it also served as his winning entry for the American Prize in Piano Performance, one of a series of new, nonprofit competitions designed to recognize the best in the performing arts in the U.S. It’s been several years since Nassar has done public concerts, but he hopes to play a few in 2015.

“I knew it was very difficult to make a career as a musician, so I’ve never tried,” Nassar said. “Only a handful of classical pianists in the country make their entire living from performing. So I’ve never thought of myself in that way. I started out as a listener and still think of myself that way. That’s the most important thing to do with music, to listen and try to re-create for others the experience I have when hearing great musicians play great music.”