Always marching on: young composer with congenital heart disease knows no limits

wind octetZachary Friedland will never forget the day he first felt limitless. He was 12 years old, and it was three weeks after his open-heart surgery at Boston Children’s Hospital. When his father asked him if he’d like to go for a walk, Zach replied, “Sure.” But inside, he felt a little uneasy. Before the surgery, he would get winded just walking from the front of his school down the hall to his sixth-grade classroom.

Zach was born with a type of congenital heart disease that causes irregular heartbeats and tricuspid stenosis, a narrowing of the valve on the heart’s right side that makes it harder for the heart to pump blood. Zach first came to the Boston Children’s Heart Center when he was six months old for a bi-directional Glen procedure, an operation to treat various valve abnormalities.

While that surgery saved his life, as he got older, his heart function slowly declined. At age 12, it was time for Zach to have a repeat intervention. He bravely faced that surgery—a Fontan procedure that redirected blood flow from the right atrium straight to the pulmonary arteries. But he still wondered if his quality of life would really improve. Would he be able to walk without tiring?

When their car pulled up to the sprawling green campus of UMass Amherst, Zach and his father got out to walk the grounds. Zach fully expected to feel weak after a short distance. Instead, he felt exhilarated.

“We started walking across this big, grassy field,” Zach recalls. “I thought I would have to stop soon. But I just kept going and going and going! I felt like I could walk forever.”

Zach guitarThat resilient spirit defines Zach’s approach to life. Now 25, he is preparing to graduate from the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, Mass., with a Master’s in music composition. He has been writing and directing music since high school, and his original work has been performed by professional groups all over the Eastern seaboard, including the Savannah River Winds Ensemble of South Carolina. Zach even travels regularly to regional high schools as a visiting band instructor.

When asked about how the famous ensemble picked up his music, Zach is the epitome of cool and nonchalance: “I emailed the director and asked if he would like his band to play my piece.” That rare mix of initiative, confidence and true talent continues to fuel Zach’s success.

“Music was always a constant in my life,” he says. “I started with piano when I was really young and picked up drums when I was 9.” After his Fontan surgery, Zach joined the middle school marching band. “It was a good physical activity, and I met a supportive group of friends.”

In high school, Zach played drums in marching band and concert band. One day, when the conductor was out sick, Zach stepped in to take his place—and felt a rush of excitement. He felt called to push the envelope and wrote a piece of music his classmates could perform at an upcoming concert.

“I was inspired by a recent vacation to California,” says Zach, who called his first composition “Pacific Postcards.” It includes sections about the different monuments and landmarks he visited, like the Golden Gate Bridge and Pinnacles National Park.

After high school, Zach majored in music at the University of Rhode Island, where he worked with the wind ensemble and studied conducting. He graduated in 2013 and enrolled in a graduate program at Longy the same year.

Drum MajorOn May 3, the Metropolitan Wind Symphony will premiere Zach’s most recent composition at the National Heritage Museum in Lexington, Mass. The piece, called “Boston Strong,” was born out of the city of Boston’s response to the 2013 marathon bombing. It evokes an innate strength of spirit and perseverance—something the people of Boston and Zach have in common.

Zach, who is still followed regularly at the Heart Center by Betsy Blume, MD, has never defined himself by his heart condition. He has forged his own path and follows his dreams with abandon. “If I could give advice to someone else with a heart condition,” he says, “I would say nothing’s impossible. You have an insight and an outlook on life that no one else has, and with that comes the power to inspire others and inspire yourself.”

Learn more about Boston Children’s Heart Center.