Junior guard Nick Hendra is making beautiful music for struggling American

Nick Hendra, a junior guard for American University's men's basketball team, talks about an off-court hobby of his: playing the piano.
By Kathy Orton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 22, 2010

Nick Hendra, dressed in sweat pants and a baggy gray sweat shirt with an American University logo emblazoned on the front, plops down on the bench in front of the baby grand piano and begins to play the opening notes of "Für Elise" from memory.

"We could have this interview in French, if you want to," he says, then adds tongue-in-cheek, "but you have to ask the questions in French."

Hendra is not your typical Division I basketball player. The junior guard from New York is an accomplished pianist, fluent in French and working toward a double major in international business and finance. He also is the most veteran member of a young Eagles squad in the midst of a rebuilding season.

Though Hendra's talents may seem incongruous at first, he comes from a family that values creative and intellectual pursuits. His mother, Carla -- who is chairman of global strategy and innovation at Ogilvy & Mather, an international advertising, marketing and public relations agency -- studied piano and wanted her three children to learn the instrument. His father, Tony, a British-born actor and writer who is best known on college campuses for playing Ian Faith in the movie "This Is Spinal Tap," briefly trained as an opera singer.

"My mom wanted me to play the piano, but I liked it," said Hendra, who has a younger brother and sister. "I've always really loved music. I'm not one of those people that listens to one type of music. If you check my iPod, there's probably everything from Chopin on there to Jay-Z to Rascal Flatts to Miley Cyrus. I have everything on there."

When he was 7, Hendra started taking lessons from his Juilliard-trained teacher Lily Friedman, who lived in the same apartment building as his family.

"All of [my children] had some gifts, but the boys were particularly interested in" the piano, Carla Hendra said. "Both boys ended up sticking with it for a long time and Nick, in particular, [Friedman] said was very talented. We could sort of tell because he didn't have much time for practicing but he always advanced pretty well."

Later, as part of a school requirement, Hendra also learned to play the trumpet. But it was the piano that really stuck with him, even though at times he found the drudgery of practice more than he could bear.

"I hated it, but then it's a good thing," he said. "It's one of those things your parents keep telling you to do because it's going to be something that's beneficial to you later."

Hendra switches from "Für Elise" to his favorite piece, Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata," and no longer is he just striking keys on the keyboard. Each note comes out weighted with sadness and longing.

"It has a lot of interpretive requirements so you have to feel it to be able to play it well," Carla Hendra said. "You suddenly feel like a pianist when you can play that because it's not just getting the notes out. You actually can control a room. I mean he used to play it and we'd all start clapping at the end, even when he was just playing it in the house because it's a very moving piece of music.

"It's a romantic piece, and I think somewhere under all that basketball sports guy stuff is a romantic kid."

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