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Scaling the heights of love

WHEN pianist Archie Chen first set eyes on his wife Rhona Gouldson his initial thought was, "She's out of my league."

And Rhona was similarly blown away by the guy in the leathers who rocked up on his motorbike to audition for her. As Rhona was planning to travel for five months, she had advertised for someone to take over her group of piano students in her absence. She couldn't believe it when Archie made sounds from the piano that she had never heard before, and so promptly gave him the job.

While keen on getting hired, it hadn't escaped Archie's notice that his new boss was very attractive. "I was taken aback by her beauty," he says. "I didn't know what to expect when I answered the ad, because for all I knew, she could have been an old lady."

At the time, the softly spoken Rhona was in a relationship with someone else, and part of the reason for travelling was to see if he was truly "the one". She came back engaged, and thanked Archie for doing such a wonderful job with her students.

Archie is Taiwanese, but grew up in Spokane, Washington, a town most famous for producing Bing Crosby. He's an only child, and his mother raised him by herself from the age of eight, after his parents split up.

Life could be difficult, as there were very few Asians in Spokane, and Archie experienced some racism. Without siblings to turn to, he threw himself into the piano as an outlet for expression.

After school, he was a full scholarship student at Indiana University, where he did his BA and MA in music. He then came to Dublin to study with John O'Conor at the Royal Irish Academy of Music.

When his funding from the US began to run out, he approached Rhona again looking for work.

"I only had my own students, but finding students for Archie seemed like something I could do," she says. "I had split up with my fiance by then, and was only too eager to throw myself into a new project, while trying to mend my shattered heart."

Within a few days, Rhona managed to fill Archie's three days, and had enough prospective students left over to hire another teacher. Thus their school, Rathgar Piano, was born.

Rhona is the youngest of five children from Glasnevin. Like Archie, she was raised solely by her mother from the age of two, after her parents' marriage ended. She began playing piano and harp at the age of six, but really developed a passion for piano while in her teens.

She won the Peter Killian medal for the highest Leaving Cert score in music, and was awarded the Taylor Entrance Exhibition, a two-year scholarship for the best entrance exam, when she entered Trinity College to do a BA in music. As her passion was for teaching, she taught at the Leeson Park School of Music for eight years, prior to setting up her own school.

It was while clearing up after their students' concerts in June 2006, that Rhona and Archie first kissed, which took them both by surprise. They were also worried that it might jeopardise their working relationship. "When we met the following day, we agreed that it might be better to put it behind us, but within an hour we were smooching again," laughs Rhona.

"Archie has tremendous warmth and is a wonderfully positive person. He has a beautiful soft expression in his eyes, and is gorgeously handsome. When I spoke about him to my sister and best friend, they said I should go for it as they had never heard excitement like that in my voice before."

The relationship progressed quickly, and soon the pair felt very closely connected. Archie says apart from Rhona's beauty, he admired her passion for teaching, her gentle manner and superb running of the business.

That October, Rhona became pregnant with their son Solomon, and they got engaged on Christmas Eve. They were married a few weeks later, and although Rhona was six months pregnant, she says she felt fantastic and had an amazing day. They went to Taiwan on their honeymoon, and brought Archie's mother with them, as she hadn't been back in 25 years. And Archie got to meet his father for the first time since he was a boy.

"Things had seemed to move slowly for me in my 20s, so I was blown away by the speed at which everything developed," says Rhona. "It felt like the most natural thing in the world though."

Life is pretty busy for Archie and Rhona these days, as Solomon has just turned two, and they also have a baby daughter, Sheba.

Archie regularly performs and gives recitals, with Rhona working as his concert promoter. He has played for the late Pope John Paul II, and toured China earlier this year. He is also assistant lecturer of piano at the RIAM, where he is studying for a doctorate in performance with John O'Conor.

They also run Rathgar Piano together, teaching students ranging in age from five to 85, all playing to various degrees and levels. Some take exams, while others just learn for fun. There are nine teachers at the school in total, from all parts of the world, which means that they bring different influences and can specialise in many areas.

Archie and Rhona love good food, and watching movies and documentaries.

"We are both on our own individual path in life, with one path overlapping with the other, and each of us helping the other reach their goals or dreams," says Rhona. "But always in love and with 100 per cent devotion. There is nothing we wouldn't do for one another and I never doubt Archie's love for me."

www.rathgarpiano.ie; www.archiechen.com