Despite Severe Arthritis, Pianist Gets Second Chance at Stardom
Severe arthritis made Anthony Ferraro, a promising classical pianist in his youth, reinvent himself as a pop musician. (Courtesy of Cara Robbins)
Some kids know from a very young age what they want to be when they grow up; Anthony Ferraro knew he wanted to be a concert pianist. That is, until early onset arthritis in his hands threw his entire career up in the air.
Ferraro grew up in a home where you didn’t hear much Top 40 music. The stereo played Beethoven sonatas, and his mom, dad and sister all practiced on the Yamaha grand in the living room. Ferraro gave his first recital at age six. By the time he was in high school his dream of becoming a concert pianist had come into sharp focus.
“I fashioned these grandiose visions in my head of me with a full orchestra and band behind me playing a concert hall to standing ovations,” Ferraro says.
He was accepted to Baylor University’s piano program and was on his way to classical music stardom. But then, just when his dream seemed close at hand, he began to experience random bouts of stiffness in his hands.
Ferraro, now 24, had been diagnosed with arthritis in his knees at age 10, and he was afraid it had moved into his hands. But he was even more afraid that he was imagining things.
“The most sinister part is that sometimes I’d be playing a piece, and wondering, 'is this just my ability, or is this the disease?' The not knowing is the part that just killed me,” he says.
Plagued by self-doubt, he dropped out of Baylor before he even started. He moved back in with his parents in Orange County. Unsure of his next move, he got a job at the clothing store Urban Outfitters. And that’s where, against the odds, the next chapter of his career began.
The music playing at the store sounded nothing like the symphonies and concertos of his youth. It was at the store that he first heard an electro-pop musician from South Carolina called Toro Y Moi.
“It was on constant rotation in the store. I knew the three singles nauseatingly well,” Ferraro says with a laugh. “I associated it with putting people in fitting rooms.”
Around the same time he received a loan from his dad to buy keyboards, a guitar and recording equipment.
“I had to do music somehow," he says. "Pop music seemed like a possible solution.”
He began crafting his own songs under the name Astronauts etc. -- singing in a distinct, piercing falsetto. After a year at home, Ferraro enrolled in the music department at UC Berkeley and got a job at a local coffeehouse called Philz. That’s where things got really weird.
“I was working there for a few months when Chaz (Chazwick Bradley Bundick of Toro y Moi) walked in the door,” he says.
Ferraro recognized him from an interview.
“He got his coffee and sat outside. I asked my shift leader if I could take my 10-minute break," Ferraro says. "I knew it was going to be strange. I’d probably come off as a fan who couldn’t keep his mouth shut.
Bundick explains via email that he had moved to Berkeley from South Carolina the day before. He knew no one.
“I mentioned that we should hang out. I guess I asked him on a date,” Ferraro adds with a laugh. “We just kind of hit it off.”
Bundick became a mentor and friend to Ferraro. One day, months before Ferraro was set to graduate from UC Berkeley, he got an unexpected email from Bundick, who was on tour in Brazil.
“Hey man,” it began. “I’ve been talking to the guys. We think it would be great to add you to the group starting in the fall. What do you think?”
“His casualness made me think this can’t be earnest,” Ferraro says. “He can’t actually be asking me that.”
A second chance had fallen into his lap. No grand piano, but electric keyboards. No concert hall, but festivals stages and rock clubs the world over. His dream had come true, but could he keep his arthritis at bay?
Ferraro’s first tour with Toro Y Moi in the summer of 2013 was a seven-week jaunt across the United States, and his medication kept him in decent shape. It wasn’t until he returned to Berkeley that the most painful symptoms appeared.
"It started with difficulty walking; my knees, my hips, elbows, shoulders," Ferraro explains. "On a good day I could get around with a cane. On a bad day I was bed-ridden.”
In preparation for the next leg of the tour, in Australia, Ferraro switched to a new medication taken through an IV. But he missed one of his injections before leaving, and he found himself often playing to crowds in the thousands only able to use some of his fingers. Traveling from city to city proved to be even harder.
“If the pain was contained to my hands, I could still set up my equipment," he says. "I’ve broken my wrist before -- that was the only analogous pain I could relate to."
When he returned home he went to the doctor for his next IV infusion. But his body rejected the medication.
“[The nurses] always tell you, if you feel lightheaded, let us know right away,” Ferraro recounts. “Five to 10 minutes in, I started to think ‘I could feel a little bit dizzy right now. By the time I said how dizzy I felt, it was almost too late.”
He slumped over in the chair, and had to be revived with a steroid injection.
That was over a year ago. Now Toro Y Moi has a new album, "What For?," out April 7. They’ve just begun a world tour, starting with a string of dates across California that includes a stop at the world-famous Coachella festival next week. It has only been in recent months that he has found a medicine that should sustain him during the tour.
Finally, Anthony Ferraro will be able to leave his symptoms behind and focus on the music in his head, not the pain in his body.
This article was originally published on April 5, 2015.