Duke's Katie Trees: Pitch Perfect

  • Name: Katie Trees
  • Age: 21
  • Organization: Duke University

Author: Patrick Kinas, DNAOfSports.com creator.

The life of any dedicated, elite athlete hears similar refrains. Early mornings. Train. Condition. Practice. Play. Repeat. For Duke dual-sport star Katie Trees, the 6:30am workouts applied to her as well. Regularly she’d wake up before the perfect San Diego sun and head off to her individual lessons. For these lessons, Trees would leave her cleats and sticks behind.

“Everyone who learns this fact about me is shocked,” Trees joked. “It’s not exactly what a young woman does. My personality is very outgoing and bubbly. I love to talk. My view of a typical player is quiet and reserved. That’s not me.”

This player isn’t a striker on the pitch or a midfielder on the lacrosse field.

Trees started playing the piano when she was 7.

“All my siblings played an instrument,” Trees recalled. “My parents thought it was important to have a different outlet other than sports.”

So for the Trees family which is anchored by a commercial pilot, Katie’s lessons began to take flight. The lessons that her older brother and sister took, blazing an inescapable piano trail for Katie, like it or not.

“The woman up the street was teaching my brother, then my sister, and it was very hard to get in with her,” Trees said. “But once they were in, it was much easier to get me in.”

The 12-minute drive wasn’t’ just any regular drive to your run-of-the-mill piano teacher.

Jane Smisor-Bastien is legendary in piano instruction. The daughter of a piano teacher, and Ivy League educated, Smisor-Bastien is responsible for hundreds of piano collections and collaborations – some with her late husband James - that have taught novice to world-class players internationally. There are over 300 remaining in print today.

In other words, if you’ve taken piano lessons as a kid, you’ve likely read (or misread) notes from their piano tutorial books. Fortunately for the Trees family, Smisor-Bastien had a slot available for the first of the three Trees kids, and the drive to her studio was just down the road in La Jolla. First on Smisor-Bastien’s manifest was Katie’s older brother Andrew, then her sister Rebecca.

“She was the nicest woman you could possibly imagine,” Trees said of Smisor-Bastien. “She’d start with basics, then she’d dive with you into classical piano as soon as you could handle it. The motivation was there to do well. You didn’t want to show up and not do well. She made it fun and challenged you on pieces.”

“By 7th grade, I was doing classical pieces from Beethoven to Bach.”

There did come a point, however, when Katie’s parents gave her autonomy on her piano career. After 8th grade came to a close, with high school approaching, Katie was at a crossroads.

“I couldn’t wait to quit,” Trees recollected. “I would get frustrated. I’d bang hands on keys. If I didn’t get it right away, I would get frustrated very easily.”

The decision was hers to make. She had designs on getting up from the piano bench one last time. However, things didn’t turn out exactly as she had envisioned.

Instead of excusing herself from Smisor-Bastien’s studio one last time, Trees recalled a conversation that beckoned her to stay the course.

“Jane told me ‘Why would you give up something that you’re really good at?’”

Katie realized that her mentor was right and she began to aim even higher on the ivories.

“I did compete when I was younger,” Trees said. “I reached Level 8 of the piano Certificate of Merit scale.”

Soon there came a time when the piano represented something more than just a soothing instrument for Trees. The piano became an inherent piece of her being.

“For me, there was something about the piano,” Trees confessed. “I have a peaceful connection with it. I’m really able to connect with the song. It’s an outlet to sit down and spill your emotion to the piece you’re playing.”

As for a connection between soccer, lacrosse and her piano excellence, Trees grants that a theory exists.

“They’re all connected. Mentally, there are times when I’ve been at the piano, needing to memorize a piece for a recital. You have to practice how you want to play, and if you don’t practice, you won’t execute it as you need to.”

Now a junior at Duke, Trees still returns home over the holidays and when her two-sport schedule allows. However, Smisor-Bastien, as mentors often do, maintains connections with anyone whose life she has touched.

“Every year, she holds an annual Christmas party,” Trees said. “All of her students come back, and she still stays in contact with my parents and my brother and sister.”

Trees, who graduated from Torrey Pines (CA) High School, was attracted to Duke for a myriad of reasons. First and foremost, the Duke University education was paramount. Trees had given a few Ivy League schools some attention, but fell in love with Duke immediately. Further, Trees aspired to play both soccer and lacrosse, and Duke’s coaching staffs would gladly permit this to happen. That inked the deal.

“This is a great opportunity at one of the best universities in the world,” Trees said. “Both coaches are unbelievable. I couldn't have picked a better school.”

Trees did step away from the piano bench after graduating high school, but that doesn’t mean she’s given up on the instrument. The notes, chords, measures and pieces are indelibly marked on her soul.

Occasionally, when one of Trees’ Duke teams check into a hotel, a piano can sit majestically under a lobby chandelier. Just like Trees was drawn to the soothing voice of her mentor more than a decade ago at that piano 12 minutes away from the Trees home in San Diego – Trees will accede to the prodding, cajoling and romance of the keys calling out to her.

To her teammates amazement, playing only from memory, out of those curvy fingers of a Southern California girl, classic sounds fill the lobby that Beethoven, Bach and Chopin made famous.

(Photo courtesy: Katie Trees.)

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