Nico Padden can hardly remember a time when she didn’t play music.
The Floral Park singer-songwriter and music teacher started playing piano when she was 4 years old, initially taught by her mother, Rita, who was a piano teacher. Her father, Tom, started teaching her guitar at age 13 while she was growing up in Farmingdale.
“I grew up in a musical house,” she said.
Padden said she started writing her own songs soon after she began playing the guitar.
In January 2013, she self-published a debut extended play collection of seven songs entitled Waterbird with songs about relationships that suggest the sensibility of contemporary artists such as Alanis Morrisette and Carole King.
“When I am lost, you are my found/When I am locked, you are the key/When I am broken, you are the Superglue/And you are everything to me” is the refrain from “Lost and Found,” one of the songs on that EP.
Padden plays her own tunes in certain venues, like Sip This, a coffee shop in Valley Stream, and Mr. Berry’s in Bethpage. But she primarily plays cover tunes in bars and restaurants like the La Bottega Wine Bar in Carle Place, where she played last week.
“I play a lot. I feel like I’m playing all the time,” she said. “I like the thrill of the connection between me and the audience. I love seeing people having cathartic experiences because of what I’m doing onstage.”
The audience of diners in the intimate atmosphere of La Bottega responded enthusiastically to Padden’s repertoire, which includes a wide range of pop songs, from the Beatles to Simon and Garfunkel and Otis Redding. The variety of material she performs demonstrates her considerable vocal range.
She takes a different kind of pleasure from her day job teaching piano, guitar, ukulele and voice in her studio in Floral Park, where she has lived since 2012.
“I love getting to be a part of a student blossoming. I get to help kids realize their potential. I get to help them feel confident to learn something that may be challenging,” Padden said.
But she took a circuitous route to where she is today as a successful working musician and teacher.
She learned to play clarinet, bassoon and baritone horn in school. And as she was entering high school, Padden took voice lessons with a teacher who pushed her to sing opera as a soprano.
She performed in musicals in high school and in classical recitals her voice teacher staged. Then she became a classical voice major at Ithaca College, graduating with her bachelor’s degree in 2007.
She said she “explored a lot of different avenues” after graduating from Ithaca, seeking something more in her musical life. “I was at a crossroads,” she recalled.
Padden spent two years in Boston, working toward a masters degree in theater education at Emerson College. While she was there, she gained a new perspective on music after reading The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron.
“It blew my mind. It was about being true to what you truly love,” she said.
She started writing songs again, something she missed doing while studying opera, and performing in different venues around Boston. “It was a very different experience than singing songs in another language that someone else wrote,” she said. “I was building up my ‘chops’ and building up my confidence.”
While in graduate school, Padden spent her summers teaching theater at the Merrick Theater and Center for the Arts. And although she didn’t teach theater after that, her graduate school experience prepared her to become a music teacher.
“My education informs everything I do in terms of teaching. I really learned about how people learn,” she said.
After graduate school, she worked at a succession of jobs as she tried to learn just what she wanted to do with her life. That included a stint as a “scare actor” in a haunted house at Bayville Scream Park.
She was working as a nanny – a job she said she hated – when she met her future husband, Dan Vessely, a mathematics teacher in the Bellerose-Merrick School District.
Padden realized that she wanted to be a full-time working musician and teacher and her fiancé encouraged her to pursue her passion. “Now is the time. Quit your job and start your business,” she remembers him telling her before they married in 2013.
Since then, she’s steadily expanded her musical range. She primarily plays solo gigs, but she also performs as lead singer in a band backed by a keyboard player, bassist and drummer.
She also plays farmers markets and goes busking in New York City subways, where she said she enjoys “the thrill of the unexpected.”
This fall, Padden plans to self-publish a long-playing recording with a band with financing from online publishing platform Kickstarter. She plans to sell it through iTunes and CDBaby – where her EP is still available – as well as Bandcamp and her web site, www.nicopadden.com, where her upcoming engagements are listed.