Lessons in the Key of Life

A Bach minuet resonates in the air in the back room of the Blue Star Brewing Company. Frank Muñoz, 55, sits at the piano, concentrating on his every stroke of the ivory keys. “Isn’t that beautiful?” he asks with a confident smile, glancing back and forth from his sheet music to a few restaurant patrons who have stopped to watch him do what he has been doing since he was 6. “Isn’t that lovely?”

It is not only the quality of the performance that is remarkable; his natural musical ability is even more impressive due to what could easily be called a fundamental disadvantage: Muñoz was born without a left hand.

When he was a boy, and self-conscious about his condition, his mother Rafaela watched her son hide his hand inside the front pocket of his pants.

“He would shy away,” his mother said, remembering times when her son would come home from school crying because of something a classmate said. “But I knew that shying away wasn’t going to do anything for him. I wanted him to use that arm just like he used his other one.”

To help Muñoz overcome his inhibitions, his parents bought him a grand piano on his sixth birthday and enrolled him in piano classes — a bold move, Rafaela said, that yielded positive results from the very beginning.

“Once he learned the notes, he would start showing off what he could do,” she said. “His hand wasn’t an issue anymore. He just excelled in music so easily.”

Using the specialized skills he learned from a number of piano teachers, Muñoz said he never allowed his “limitation” to keep him from doing (or playing) anything he wanted — although he admits some Rachmaninoff concertos are still challenging. His left arm, which ends at his wrist and has two very small, fingerlike appendages on both sides, is what God had gave him, he said, and he decided very early on that he was not going to let it affect his talent in any way.

“I play everything that’s written on the score,” said Muñoz between measures from Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” and explanations of the history of the early-19th-century arrangement. “I have a lot in the repertoire.”

Muñoz attended La Salle High School in San Antonio, which was closed by the Christian Brothers order in 1968 (he joined the religious sect that same year), and earned a degree in Spanish linguistics from the University of Texas at El Paso. He considered his piano-playing a hobby until he was given the opportunity to study music at Loyola University in 1986. Since then, he has traveled all over the world, playing in countries such as Spain and France. One evening in Madrid, he recalled, he was performing at the downtown Westin Palace Hotel, when King Juan Carlos I of Spain and his wife Sophia came into the hotel for dinner.

“I was nervous to play at first,” Muñoz recalls. “Someone told me, ‘Are you ready Frank? The King of Spain is waiting at the bar.’”

Now, settled comfortably in San Antonio, Muñoz says playing for his many local admirers is extravagant enough. Currently, he volunteers his services to a number of venues in the city, including La Mansion del Rio and the Majestic Restaurant & Club on Houston Street.

Muñoz’s politeness and sweet nature are what caught the attention of Majestic Restaurant owners Phil and Virginia Yamin, who say that many of their customers ask when he is going to arrive for his lunch and dinner performances.

“He is so wonderful,” says Virginia. “The customers love him and he has a great personality and a good sense of humor. The other day he told me that he went to go get a manicure and they took off 50 percent.”

Although the club was doing just fine with the piped-in music the Yamins used to supplement the restaurant’s ambience, Phil said Muñoz is an asset who always brings something extra to make everyone feel special.

“The beautiful part about Frank is that he is a very nice person,” he said. “He’ll come over sometimes and bring corsages for my wife to wear. I say, ‘Frank, you don’t have to do that.’ He says, ‘I want to do it.’”

While playing for the dinner crowd at the Majestic, Muñoz takes a short break to chat up a few of the regulars. Toni Ruiz, a ranch owner from Laredo, reaches her hands out to him and thanks him for his music.

“I’m inspired by him,” she said. “His personal energy is radiant. You can feel the warmth and the genuineness.”

Muñoz walks back to his keyboard and repositions himself; the gentle hum of voices slowly decrescendos and his audience is recaptured by a Chopin etude.

“You know, I’m just a plain fellow,” he says. “But the piano has 88 keys. And with 88 keys, there are infinite possibilities.”