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Playing by Ear

Whether it’s in music or life, Stephen Fancher believes in taking opportunities as they come. To be successful, sometimes you just need to improvise.

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  • | 6:00 a.m. June 10, 2015
Stephen Fancher has settled into a harmonious life in Sarasota as a financial adviser by day and a lounge pianist by night at Sarasota’s local restaurants.
Stephen Fancher has settled into a harmonious life in Sarasota as a financial adviser by day and a lounge pianist by night at Sarasota’s local restaurants.
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Stephen Fancher sits posed at the piano near the bar at Michael’s On East, ready to take his musical cues from the crowd. He asks a diner for his favorite song by The Beatles.

He plays a few bars of the patron’s favorite — “Let It Be” — before he asks someone else for his favorite classical composer.

“Beethoven,” he says.

Without hesitation, Fancher fluidly combines the melody of The Beatles with the unmistakable chord progression of the Austrian composer.

 But Fancher is used to shifting between two worlds.

By day, he bangs away at his computer keyboard as a financial adviser at Mariash, Lowther and Associates of Merrill Lynch. By night and on the weekends, he strokes the keys of a piano. 

It wasn’t always this way.

Prior to moving to Sarasota in 2012 with his then pregnant wife, Michelle, and their 2-year-old daughter, Piper, music was Fancher’s day job.

He was a music teacher, at Stark Elementary School in Stamford, Conn. His job was to develop the music program at the Title I school.

Then a call from his brother-in-law, Brian Mariash, changed everything. Mariash offered Fancher a job as a financial adviser in Sarasota.

At the time, Fancher had no experience in the financial sector. He hadn’t even passed the essential Series 66 and Series 7 exams.

But Fancher was seeking a change. He accepted.

Mariash, who also had a background in music education, wasn’t worried.  

“Even if he didn’t have a finance background, he knew how to explain complex concepts to people,” says Mariash.

During his first year in the financial sector, Fancher quit performing music to focus on financial advising. It was the first time since he was a kid that he wasn’t making music.

Stephen Fancher plays every few weeks around the Sarasota area for area charities.
Stephen Fancher plays every few weeks around the Sarasota area for area charities.

House Full of Music
Music was always part of the Fancher household. Fancher’s father was the music director at the family’s church and a member of the New England Chamber Choir for 30 years. His mother also sang.

But he and his brother, Dennis, developed opposite musical tastes. Dennis (now a professional guitarist) listened to heavy rock, while Fancher preferred classical music.

“I didn’t see him for three years,” Fancher jokes. “He locked himself in his bedroom and played Led Zeppelin, and I sat in the living room playing Bach and Beethoven.”

Fancher pursued his love of music by earning degrees in music performance at the University of Connecticut, Trinity College in London and State University of New York at Purchase.

He made a living accompanying opera singers and students at Juilliard, conducting a church choir and teaching piano lessons while sharing an apartment with three other musicians.

He was living his dream, but still felt something was missing.

“Being a performer is kind of isolating a lot of the times,” says Fancher. “You have to spend a lot of time alone.”

That’s when, around Christmas 2003, Fancher decided to become a music teacher.

He took the job at Stark Elementary, even though he knew little about teaching.

“Every free time I had, I’d go to the two best teachers in the school and I just watched them,” says Fancher. “I went to the best music teacher in town, and I sat in their classroom.”

Over the next eight years, Fancher continued to craft the school’s music curriculum while working part-time as a performer and piano instructor.

In 2012, the Stamford School District named him its Teacher of the Year.

He loved working with the kids and teaching them music, but he sought more financial stability for his growing family.

So, with a 2-year-old and a baby on the way, he took his brother-in-law’s offer and he and his family headed to Sarasota.

Back to the bench
A year after taking the job at Merrill Lynch, Fancher was enjoying lunch with his family on the top floor of the former Eat Here restaurant on Sarasota’s Main Street. He spied a piano in the corner — he couldn’t resist. He sat down and began playing  by ear with what was playing over the speakers at the restaurant.

When owner Sean Murphy heard Fancher playing, he offered to pay him to perform. Fancher declined the offer, instead saying he would play for free — for fun.

Fancher now plays about every two weeks at local restaurants such as Michael’s On East and Amore by Andrea on Longboat Key. The tip jar on his piano raises money for local charities such as the Children’s Healthy Pantry, Center for Building Hope and the Eloise Werlin Causeway Park.

Sometimes Fancher’s coworker, J. Barton Lowther, performs with him, singing Frank Sinatra and Billy Joel standards. Fancher likens his partner to Michael Bublé — only better looking.

“His style is impeccable,” says Lowther. “He adapts to whatever I’m singing. He’s the quickest music partner I’ve had. Whenever I mess up, he’s there to save me.”

The set-up at Michael’s On East is perhaps most indicative of Fancher’s collaborative approach to music. Stools surround the piano, inviting patrons to gather around the performer while he plays.

He honors all requests — even “Night Changes” by One Direction.

“I like the idea of the power of now and big thinking and being present in the moment,” says Fancher. “I like the idea of performing in public because it’s the idea of learning how to be comfortable being uncomfortable.”


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