Two years ago, Kansas University alumnus Michael Strening Jr. didn't know if he'd ever be able to play his piano again. Nerve damage to one of his wrists had made striking the keys too painful.
So Strening moved to Rome to live and to heal: He worked as a tour guide, met the woman who would become his wife, and somehow his wrists recovered enough that he could begin recording a new CD.
The CD, "Stars," will be released this week. Strening will be in Lawrence Saturday and April 1 to promote the seven-cut album.
"It will mean so much to me to be there because (my music) all comes out of my experience at KU, Italy and Chicago," Strening, 32, said during a recent phone call from Chicago, where he now lives.
Strening, who grew up in a suburb north of Chicago, earned a bachelor's degree in history at KU in the summer of 1992. After his graduation, he became interested in improvisation and performed at Second City, Improv Olympics and the Improv Institute. It was during this time that he began to play the piano again.
"I studied since I was in the second grade and through high school. But I had had enough and I wanted to get away from it. I didn't touch the piano again until the summer of 1992. I called my parents and they sent some of my old music books and I walked over to Murphy Hall (and used the pianos there)," he said.
Strening also revived his interest in composing, which he had done as a boy. Because he can't read music, he would go into the studio and record his compositions. He would use the tapes to help him remember and refine his music.
From those sessions came his first CD, "Sunrise." He began touring and sold 2,000 copies of the recording without the help of a distribution company.
Then he developed the injury.
"One day, I woke up and (moving my wrists) was painful," he said.
When he returned from his yearlong hiatus in Rome and after his wrists had grown stronger, Strening recorded "Stars," which he describes as "a joyful experience from beginning to end."
Two of his favorite cuts are "Wedding Song," which he wrote as a wedding gift for one of his friends, and "Lullaby," which he wrote when he was in the fifth grade.
Strening works as a substitute teacher for the Chicago public school system and has established his own recording label, Thornwood Music. One day, he hopes to be able to perform year-round in the United States and abroad.
"Right now," he said, "I can't live solely off the music."