Sgt. Justin Echols joined the Army Reserve in 1998 and the Oklahoma City Police Department in 2001, and was serving as an undercover narcotics officer when the 95th Infantry Division was activated in 2003.
But everything changed one dewy morning that year.
Before Echols could be deployed to Iraq, he was in a horrific head-on car collision that permanently disrupted four disks in his back. Injured, dejected and unable to serve overseas with his fellow soldiers, he turned to musical healing.
"I was really in a state of depression after the car accident, and something inside me just decided to sit down and plink on the piano once every three or four months," Echols, 29, said. "I found the music very soothing."
When Echols stepped up his practicing in 2006, he began playing up to six hours a day. It wasn't long before cramped fingers and sore forearms became a staple in his everyday routine.
Echols started taking lessons from Oklahoma City University's School of Music instructors and often performs publicly. After headlining several music events around the state in 2006, he contacted the general manager of the Skirvin Hilton Hotel in downtown OKC just as recently renovated hotel prepped to debut its Red Piano Lounge.
The pianist was hired on the spot, and immediately started a practice and performance routine that began at 5 a.m. before work and resumed at 4 p.m. after. Echols said his schedule included double piano jobs at the Skirvin and Boulevard Steakhouse each night.
The musician now has repertoire of 50 to 60 memorized pieces and a standing 5 p.m. Monday gig at the Skirvin's Red Piano. He hopes to record and release his first CD this summer. —Joanna Rus