Formerly Homeless Piano Player to Perform at Carnegie Hall

04/04/2014 AT 10:20 AM EDT



The revered path to Carnegie Hall normally doesn't veer through homelessness.

But when Florida college student James Matthews, 24, takes the stage of the famed venue's Weill Recital Hall later this month, he will look back on struggles – specifically the recent year and a half when he had no roof of his own – through which he says his love for the piano kept him going.

"It's always been my escape," he told the Pensacola News-Journal. "I decided if I never gave up, it would get me through life, and it has. I don't know where I'd be if it wasn't for music."



A student at the University of West Florida with plans to graduate in 2015, Matthews earned his chance to play on the concert stage with a video entry in the 2014 American Protégé International Piano and Strings Competition. His performance of Sergei Prokofiev's "Piano Sonata No. 7," which he submitted online in January at the urging of his instructor Heidi Salanki, won him an honorable mention and thus a spot to perform April 20 at the New York City landmark.

"We were thrilled," Matthews said. "When we entered the competition, it was just taking a risk to see what would happen. [Salanki] was really happy for me, but she made sure I started practicing even more.

It was much earlier, around age 3, when Matthews says his appreciation of music took hold, growing up in Wauchula, Fla., and learning lessons about jazz and blues from his father. In middle school he made the piano his pursuit. "I started reading and listening to everything I could get my hands on about piano, and it just kind of grew from there," he says.

He signed on with a professional instructor, began playing with his school's choir, and enrolled to study music at Florida Southern College in Lakeland. But after high school and with his parents out of the picture, Matthews says his finances dried up. He found himself without a steady place to live, seeking occasional refuge in the school's 24-hour rehearsal studio.

That's where an instructor found him asleep. The teacher located a temporary home for Matthews, then helped to enroll him in Chipola College in Marianna, with a dorm that Matthews could afford. The subsequent move to the University of West Florida put him on his current path.

Now, he hopes the rare opportunity and attention can smooth the path to his future.

"It's a dream come true," he told Pensacola's WEAR ABC Channel 3. "I, in a million years, thought I would never see myself going on that stage, and it just means the world to me."

"I really don't know what's going to happen with it or anything," says Matthews, "but I'm just going to go and show my best."

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