She lives in a small town in New Jersey, has a parakeet named Mozart, loves ice-cream, chess, and bird-duck-goose-watching. Other than that, she is just an ordinary child prodigy.
PPM: Which city do you live in and what do you like about it? HZ: I currently live in a small town in New Jersey – the Garden State! There are lots of wild animals in New Jersey that live in my backyard including squirrels, chipmunks, deer, turkey, wild cats, groundhogs, bunnies, ducks, and a whole bunch of birds (cardinals, blue jays, doves, robins, sparrows, finches…)!! Recently, there’s been a duck couple visiting my yard every few days! The lady duck has been really bossy towards the gentleman duck (whom I named “Rachmaninoff”), quacking aggressively every time she needs his help. Rachmaninoff has been a real gentleman who always follows her quacking instructions without hesitation. They like wading in my backyard stream or taking a walk on the grass – they’re sooo adorable!! One of my favorite hobbies is bird-duck-goose-watching, which makes living in NJ perfect for me!! I also love how I pass by the beautiful Hudson River, full of bikers and joggers, every time I commute to New York for Juilliard.
PPM: Do you have siblings? HZ: I don’t have any siblings, but I do have a cousin!
Rachmaninoff has been a real gentleman who always follows her quacking instructions without hesitation.
PPM: How did you start your piano studies and who was your first teacher? HZ: It all started when my grandma, who was a university professor, decided to buy an upright piano for herself to learn it as a hobby after she retired. I immediately fell in love with the piano, and it became my favorite toy every time I visited her place! There was a piano showroom in a mall close to where I lived, and whenever my parents took me shopping in the mall (I loved shopping :D), I was always so attracted to the showroom that I would drag them towards that direction. The showroom happened to offer piano lessons as well though they were taught by amateurs. Since I was so intrigued by the pianos and refused to budge, my parents finally signed me up for some lessons. After a couple of lessons I had already memorized all the pieces in my first piano book, and since the teacher didn’t do anything other than letting me play through everything and I was quick at sight-reading, my non-musician parents figured that playing the piano couldn’t be easier so why bother taking me to the lessons? They never took my piano study seriously. So, they actually didn’t buy me a piano for the first year. Buying me piano scores, they decided, was equal to taking me to the lessons. I was only 3 and, unfortunately, don’t remember my first teacher’s name… but I do remember that I had total freedom for the next one or two years happily playing all the pieces I loved including Chopin (OBM) Nocturne in E flat when I was 4 – one of my favorites.
After a couple of lessons I had already memorized all the pieces in my first piano book…
PPM: When did you have your first public performance? HZ: I had my first public performance when I was three years old. Hahaha, there’s no way I can still remember how I exactly felt about my playing but I do remember I had a lot of fun, it was a hot summer day, and I got a big ice cream afterwards!
PPM: Do you go to school outside the house or are you home schooled? HZ: I go to regular school in NJ where I have a bunch of friends! I am an A+ student (and, no – I don’t have a tutor). My teachers are all so funny, nice, kind, and supportive! I love school!!
I love composing all types of music for different kinds of instruments. I often perform my own piano pieces in my recitals.
PPM: Please, tell our readers about the music you write. What have you written so far and where did you perform your compositions? HZ: I love composing all types of music for different kinds of instruments. I often perform my own piano pieces in my recitals. Many people come to me after my performance and tell me how my composition touched their hearts. It makes me very happy that my music speaks to them. I performed a shortened version of one of my pieces on The Ellen Show at my second appearance when I was 9. I have some of my music on my Youtube channel, so feel free to check it out!
PPM: Who picks your concert wardrobe? What are your favorite outfits? Harmony Zhu (HZ): I love picking my own concert wardrobe! One of my favorite dresses is a bright red one that I wore to my performance with the Philadelphia Orchestra under the baton of Yannick Nézet-Séguin (MGBH) on the Opening Night Gala Concert for their 2017/18 season last October.
PPM: What do you like to do on weekends? HZ: I go to the Juilliard School on Saturdays, which has made Saturday my favorite day of the week! On Sundays it really depends. With my million hobbies, I could be doing anything from reading, drawing, dancing, and singing to playing ping pong to going to my friends’ places (sometimes we have a sleepover, or go see movies, etc.)…
I have a parakeet whom I named Mozart, her nickname being Momo! She is now three years old. Momo was born to be musical as she always chirps along to the beat of my playing.
PPM: Do you have any pets? HZ: I have a parakeet whom I named Mozart, her nickname being Momo! She is now three years old. Momo was born to be musical as she always chirps along to the beat of my playing. When I play most Chopin pieces she chirps softly and happily as she is a big fan of Chopin’s melodic music. When I have to play something loud like most Prokofiev pieces, she doesn’t like it and would chirp angrily at me as if I were making a huge mistake. She is never shy of voicing her musical opinions!
PPM: Who are your favorite composers and why? HZ: My favorite composers are Chopin, Rachmaninoff (OBM), and Prokofiev (OBM). I love Chopin for his mostly “sentimental” music. Rachmaninoff’s music, especially his orchestral music, is so grand and carries such rich colors. I love the tension and energy in Prokofiev’s music. My favorite work by Prokofiev would be his 3rd Piano Concerto.
PPM: What is the biggest challenge for you in practicing piano? HZ: When I practice, I always tend to start improvising, which makes it hard to concentrate on just practicing. 🙂
PPM: What is your favorite food? HZ: Ice cream!!! I love all kinds of ice cream, but my favorite is cookies and cream…
PPM: What are your favorite subjects in school? HZ: That‘s a tough question to answer – I love all my school subjects! If I had to choose a favorite few I’d say those would be math, history, Spanish, art, and P.E..
PPM: If you could meet any classical composer from the past, who would it be and what questions would you ask him? HZ: I would love to meet with every major classical composer and ask them to play their own pieces for me – I’m so curious how they would have played their own pieces! I’d also like to show them music of later genres to see how they would respond. For example, I really want to ask Bach (OBM) what he thinks of his music on a modern piano with pedal.
PPM: You’ve recently traveled to Israel. Please, tell our readers about your experience. HZ: I had a spectacular experience in Israel! I went to Israel to perform three concerts in Tel Aviv and Haifa with the Israel Philharmonic. The Israel Philharmonic musicians are so warm and kind, and it was such an honor for me to collaborate with them! Besides the wonderful musical experience, Israel’s beautiful beaches, fascinating history, and stunning nature were all extremely intriguing to me! In my free time, I got to visit the lowest place on earth and float effortlessly in the Dead Sea (it lives up to the hype!), climb the breathtaking Masada Fortress in the Israeli Desert to learn about the history of the Jewish revolt against the Roman empire that happened 2000 years ago, and explore the Holy City of Jerusalem, a city where old meets new and holy meets secular. It felt like travelling back in time!
Not every California teenage pianist gets a title of the Young Steinway Artist. Umi Garrett (MGBH) became one at 13. A recipient of many acclaimed piano awards, she was only nine years old when she recorded and released her first album “Just For You”. Her performance of Chopin’s Fantasy-Impromptu in C-sharp minor, Op. 66 from this album appears on the soundtrack for the major motion picture Jobs. Her second recording, Music in Life, was recorded in 2013, at the age of 12. She spends a lot of time in solitude playing piano, but does he best to live the balanced life of a normal teenager. In this interview she shares with the readers what it’s like to be Umi Garrett.
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Piano Performer Magazine (PPM): How did your relationship with a piano start? Umi Garrett (UG): When I was four, my friends started taking after school (rather, after kindergarten) group lessons in piano. They seemed to be having lots of fun, and I was always fascinated by music and instruments, so I asked my parents to let me start. Eventually, we got an upright piano, and then a grand piano a few years later, and my love for piano and music continued to grow. I don’t think my parents could even imagine that this is what would happen when they let me start taking music lessons. Nevertheless, here I am now, still just as fascinated by the piano as I was 13 years ago.
PPM: Please, tell our readers about your piano teachers and what you’ve learned from each of them. UG: My current piano teacher, Professor John Perry (MGBH), has taught me that there is more to being a pianist than staying inside and practicing. He has taught me that it is important to form experiences and make connections with people in order to better make connections with the audience through music. He has also taught me, in addition to my other piano teacher, Mrs. Mina Hirobe-Perry (MGBH), how to produce a better, more beautiful sound that can reach every corner of the concert hall. My past teachers has taught me a lot about technique, but my current teachers have taught me not only how to play well technically, but how to create art to share with the audience.
PPM: Please, tell our readers a little bit about your family. Do you have any siblings? Who are your parents? UG: People always ask if my family is musical, and the truth is, I’m the only musician in my family. It’s fun being the only musician in its own way – I can be the first person to play some pieces for my family and I can teach them about classical music. I’m the only child, but I’ve always wanted siblings. However, I’m pretty close with my parents. I often spend time with them going shopping or playing games. They’ve always been incredibly supportive of my musical and other endeavors, and I’m very lucky to have parents like them.
PPM: Which performance venue has been your favorite so far? UG: I’ve played in so many beautiful venues, that it’s hard to choose. However, my favorite venues are when I played in elementary schools in Tohoku in 2013 and 2015 in Japan. Tohoku, the Northern region of Japan, was hit with a devastating earthquake and tsunami in 2011, and I had the amazing opportunity to play for and spend time with some of the children in the area who survived the tragedy. Music has an incredible therapeutic and healing quality that I hoped I could help the children with. I visited 4 schools in 2013 and 2 schools in 2015, and every time, I was so touched by the children’s strength and hopefulness for the future. Seeing their smiling faces after playing my pieces will always be my favorite memory from a performance.
Music has an incredible therapeutic and healing quality that I hoped I could help the children with. I visited 4 schools in 2013 and 2 schools in 2015, and every time, I was so touched by the children’s strength and hopefulness for the future. Seeing their smiling faces after playing my pieces will always be my favorite memory from a performance.
PPM: Who are your favorite composers? What types of piano pieces do you like to perform the most and why? UG: I love playing all types of pieces, for that reason – each one is unique and requires different technical skills as well as emotional understanding. My favorite composers are always changing, and it also depends on if I’m listening to these composers’ pieces or playing these composers’ pieces. Right now, my favorite composer to listen to is Brahms (OBM) (and especially his symphonies). His music is so powerful, yet so beautiful. My favorite composer to play right now is Beethoven (OBM). I am obsessed with playing his music. The more I play his pieces and the more I study his scores, the more gems I find in his music – like a hidden melody or rhythm pattern. It’s almost like treasure hunting and I love it. I love the passion and intensity of his pieces. I also love the challenge of getting into the mindset to play Beethoven – I almost have to change my personality for a few minutes while I play, from cheerful to moody. That’s the cool thing about performing music. You can be a completely different person when playing different pieces.
PPM: Can you share any funny stories or awkward moments from your performance experiences? UG: I was performing in a student recital with two of my friends in a music festival in Italy a couple years ago. The unique thing was that the concert was held outside, in a courtyard space. There was a nice and bright spotlight up above the keyboard because it was already dark, and in the background there was a beautiful church in the distance. Everything was going perfectly until, right when I was about to play, the church bells began ringing, and didn’t stop for at least a whole minute. It was funny because it almost perfectly coincided with the rhythm of the piece I was playing, and then the chamber music of piano and church bells was completed with an ambulance, full sirens going, driving right past the courtyard. Oh, and also, remember the spotlight I mentioned? Well, not only did I like it because I could see the keys, these flying ant bugs loved it, and they’d fly up to the lightbulb, hit it, and drop like flies (literally) onto the keyboard. It was more funny than an inconvenience, though, and we all had a nice laugh about the bugs, the church bells and the ambulance afterwards. It was definitely an experience!
Oh, and also, remember the spotlight I mentioned? Well, not only did I like it because I could see the keys, these flying ant bugs loved it, and they’d fly up to the lightbulb, hit it, and drop like flies (literally) onto the keyboard. It was more funny than an inconvenience, though, and we all had a nice laugh about the bugs, the church bells and the ambulance afterwards. It was definitely an experience!
PPM: Please, tell our readers about your CD recording experience/s. Do you have any upcoming albums? UG: I love recording for my CDs. The recording takes a really long time and is exhausting, but it’s a really rewarding experience. It’s unlike a concert, because in a session, it’s just you, the piano, and the microphones. Whereas in a concert it’s you, the piano, and the audience.
My favorite thing about music is sharing it with the audience in performance, but there is something really intimate and personal about recording music. It’s also really exciting because you feel the anticipation of the new CD release and hope that people will like it. Speaking of new CD releases, I’ve got a new CD!! It’s called Storybook, and it’s filled with my favorite pieces. I’ve been working on it for over a year now, and I am so happy with it. I named it Storybook because of how each piece in the album has a special, personal story behind it, but also because I want to inspire people to think of their own stories with the music.
Speaking of new CD releases, I’ve got a new CD!! It’s called Storybook, and it’s filled with my favorite pieces. I’ve been working on it for over a year now, and I am so happy with it.
PPM: Do you compose your own music? UG: I don’t compose my own music, but I enjoy improvising whenever I can. I think it’s really fun and therapeutic to just go to the piano and play whatever is on your mind. I also love improvising with friends, especially ones who play different instruments, because you start getting more ideas and colors to share and pass around while you play.
PPM: What does being a piano professional mean to you? UG: To me, being a piano professional means to always do my best, regardless of the circumstances. In February of 2015, I was diagnosed with terrible tendonitis in both arms, preventing me from practicing for an entire week before an important performance of Chopin’s Concerto No. 1. My solution was to prepare by repeatedly listening to recordings of the piece, studying the score, and reading many of Chopin’s letters. I discovered a passage, in which Chopin wrote of the exact concerto that I was to perform. Reading, “It is… a thousand happy memories…a kind of reverie in the moonlight on a beautiful spring evening” was more helpful than practicing the piece a thousand times. I was able to put myself in Chopin’s shoes when performing and form an emotional connection with the audience. Being professional means to overcome difficulties and create the best music that I can.
PPM: How often do you visit Japan? Do you have relatives there? UG: Not as often as I’d like to. I used to go once or even twice a year when I was younger, but now I only visit if I have performances there. That’s a bit of a bummer because my mom’s whole side of the family lives there, including my grandparents, but it’s not all bad because every time I go to Japan, I can play for them at my concert. I think at one point I hadn’t gone back in about two years, but this summer I actually got to go to Japan just for vacation for the first time in five or six years, which was great. I visited my grandparents in Tokyo and ate lots of amazing food, visited friends, and actually went sightseeing a little bit and went up the Tokyo Tower for the first time. Most of the time I’m in Japan, I’m rushing through the city to rehearse and travel, which is a lot of fun in its own way, but getting to have a little time to myself and relax was just amazing.
PPM: What is the biggest difference between the Japanese and American culture, in your opinion? UG: I’ve noticed that American people tend to be more direct about what they want and need, while Japanese people are more indirect in expressing their true feelings. I don’t think one is better than the other, but I definitely find it interesting. Also, things in Japan are a lot more compact and smaller. Doorways are smaller and cars look like tiny little boxes. After you’re in Japan for a while, it starts looking normal, but if you just arrived there from America, everything looks “fun sized.”
PPM: Not so long ago, you performed on a cruise. What was that travel experience like, and what memories do you carry from that trip? UG: I was invited to perform on a Crystal Cruises transatlantic cruise ship a couple nights a week. The cruise started in Edinburgh and went to Hamburg, Amsterdam, made its way up towards Iceland, passed by some other Northern islands, Nova Scotia, then finished in New York. Iceland, though, was definitely one of my favorite stops on the route. Reykjavik was interesting to visit. The memories just keep getting better and more vivid as time goes on – you start remembering these little things that you saw and experienced, like the cute, yet unpronounceable, street names or the smell that comes from the small crepe shops on the side of the road. One thing that I remember really vividly is that it was SO cold, which was crazy, because it was the middle of August. But then again, it’s not so crazy, because Iceland is so far north. In any case, if you ever plan to go to Iceland, even if it’s in the middle of summer, bring LOTS of warm clothes.
The memories just keep getting better and more vivid as time goes on – you start remembering these little things that you saw and experienced, like the cute, yet unpronounceable, street names or the smell that comes from the small crepe shops on the side of the road.
PPM: What’s your favorite clothing style to wear in your every day life and who picks your wardrobe for concert performances? UG: My concert performance wardrobe is picked out by my mom and I. Usually, we buy dresses especially for concerts, but my favorite performance dress right now is one that I got for prom last year. A lot of performance gowns can be uncomfortable, so it’s really awesome when you can find a dress that feels awesome and looks awesome, too. Outside of concert clothes, comfort is definitely a big part in my wardrobe, especially because until recently, I’ve never been really interested in shopping or fashion. Now, I’m starting to see it as a way to express myself and my personality, but I’m still experimenting and playing around with styles. But if I had to describe my wardrobe in one word, it would definitely be “comfy.”
PPM: In the past you’ve been home schooled. What type of homeschooling was it? How was this experience for you and what advantages and disadvantages do you see in it? UG: I was home schooled for seventh and eight grade, and I did online schooling. Of course, every person and student has their preferences, and I’m sure some really enjoy online schooling, but my experience with it wasn’t the best. I’m a fairly social person, and I enjoy being with my friends for the majority of the time. I’m also the only child and a pianist (which is a lonely profession in itself, because it requires hours of solitary concentration). So, almost all of my social interactions come from school. As you can imagine, homeschooling was really lonely for me. It did have its advantages, though. The schedule was flexible, and I could go to school in my pajamas if I wanted to. For me, however, the disadvantages outweighed the advantages, and I started going to a non-virtual high school (a real high school) starting freshman year, and I’ve been loving it!
PPM: Would you name five favorite things in your room? UG: My five favorite things in my room are the map that has pushpins to show all the places I’ve been, the wall of postcards that I’ve bought and friends have sent me, a drawing of flowers made by my best friend, all of my stuffed animals that I refuse to give away even at 17, and the wall decorations I currently have. So if you’ve watched Stranger Things, you know that there’s a wall in the show that’s covered with Christmas lights and has the alphabet written underneath it. I’ve always wanted to replicate it, and with the help of my friend, we managed to make it, and right now it might be my favorite thing ever. The only downside to this decoration, though, is that when people who haven’t seen the show come into my room, they want to know why I have the alphabet taped onto my wall and tease me, asking if that’s the new topic I’m learning in school. It’s okay, they’ll see what it truly is when the lights start flickering.
My five favorite things in my room are the map that has pushpins to show all the places I’ve been, the wall of postcards that I’ve bought and friends have sent me, a drawing of flowers made by my best friend, all of my stuffed animals that I refuse to give away even at 17, and the wall decorations I currently have.
PPM: What do you enjoy doing on a weekend when when you are not practicing? UG: On a typical weekend, if I’m not practicing, I’m probably at home or at a friend’s house eating food and watching Netflix. I also really enjoy reading and baking sweets. My friends and I also go shopping or to Dave and Busters where I destroy the block-stacking game and win a couple hundred tickets at a time.
PPM: What are some of the things that make you smile and what are you pet peeves? UG: Last Christmas, I asked for a Polaroid camera, and ever since then, I’ve been carrying it around with me and taking pictures of my friends and I. I usually take two or more so I can give them to my friends and still have some memories left over. Looking at these pictures always makes me smile. I don’t have a lot of pet peeves, but when people directly bite into a chocolate bar instead of breaking it off into the pieces (likes it’s supposed to), it makes me want to take their chocolate bar away, because, clearly, they don’t deserve it. I mean, come on, the little indentations are there for a reason.
PPM: What qualities in people do you respect the most? UG: I have so much admiration and respect for people who stand up for what they believe in.
PPM: What are some of your favorite places in California? UG: I really love Long Beach. It’s near my home, but I don’t get to go there often, so it’s a treat when I can. I love the ocean and the beach, and Long Beach has these amazing little cafes, art stores, and gelato shops that I just love. I just love walking on the beach and in the town. Besides Long Beach, my other favorite place is obviously Disneyland. Disneyland is perfect.
PPM: What is your favorite food? UG: I’ll honestly eat anything and everything. If someone offers me food, I’ll take it, even if the person is a complete stranger. If I have to choose though, I would pick Japanese food. I can’t get anymore specific, though, since there’s too many Japanese foods that I like: ramen, sushi, dumplings, mochi, and basically everything else. I also love pasta and pizza and In-N-Out burgers. Also, ice cream.
PPM: Do you celebrate Japanese holidays? If so, which ones? UG: Since I’ve been born and raised in the good ole United States, I’m pretty Americanized, but I still celebrate New Years’ in a sort of Japanese way. And by sort of Japanese way, I mean that I pester my mom every year to make me the traditional Japanese New Years’ dishes because they are SO good.
PPM: What does gratitude mean to you and what are you most grateful for in your life? UG: I’m most grateful for the friends and family in my life. Without them, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. Even and especially during stressful times, they are always by my side, supporting me and keeping me motivated. So to me, gratitude means to care for and to be supportive of my friends and family like they have been for me.
PPM: What makes you feel most centered and grounded? UG: My friends and family, especially through crazy times. They remind me to take a breath and live in the moment.
PPM: What is your dream as a pianist? UG: My dream as a pianist is to be able to use my music to help others. Music can have such a positive impact on people and I hope that my music can have these effects.
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Passion, raw excitement about the craft, and a surprising sense of humor is something we rarely encounter and expect from adult pianists. In fact, as we grow up, usually, the more excitement we display about something the more immature and childish we are perceived. Such display of emotion is usually frowned upon in society. But coming from children, however, it is welcomed and appreciated.Why is this so? Perhaps, watching display of excitement in children reminds us of something that we’ve lost – an innate appreciation of everything around us and pure enjoyment from doing what we love. Elias and Zion Phoenix -the long-haired twins from Florida – are sources of such inspiration for us, the grown up pianists. Here is a snapshot of their unusual story.
PPM: Does anyone in your family besides you and your brother play piano?
Elias&Zion:Yes, our mother plays piano although she never had any formal training in piano. She taught herself! She has a background in music as a french horn player.
PPM: Who was your first piano teacher? And whom do you study with at the moment? Elias: My first piano teacher was my mother. She’s amazing and I still study with her. I’ve had a couple other piano mentors and teachers. I currently study with Dr. Grigorios Zamparas (MGBH). Zion: My mom taught me how to play. She’s the one that got me interested in playing, she always played music around the house.
PPM: When did you first start playing piano?
Elias&Zion: We started playing piano when we were first exposed to one at around 3 years old. We started playing by ear and figuring out complex songs we had heard. Our mom noticed the songs we played were always in the correct pitch, and she realized we had a perfect pitch. She also noticed we really loved playing and performing. She then bought us each a baby grand piano and started giving us lessons around the age of 5.
PPM: Who are your favorite composers and why? What music do you like listening to?
Elias: Beethoven is one of my favorites because I feel like I can relate to him. Rachmaninoff has created some amazing pieces of work. I also like listening to people who, I think, interpret songs the way the composer intended. There is actually a sound recording of Rachmaninoff playing Piano Concerto No. 3, which is truly a work of art. Beethoven is amazing. I wish there were sound recordings of him playing some of his amazing concertos and sonatas. I also like classic rock and alternative artists such as Elton John (MGBH), Queen, Tori Amos (MGBH), and Beck (MGBH). I listen to a wide range of music.
Zion: Tchaikovsky (OBM), Beethoven (OBM), Rachmaninoff (OBM), Albert Ammons (OBM), Tori Amos (MGBH), Cat Stevens (MGBH), and Elton John (MGBH), to name a few. Currently, I’m really enjoying Jethro Tull (MGBH)’s music.
PPM: Do you compose your own music?
Zion: Yes, I’ve been composing all kinds of music since I was very young. I write Alternative, Classical, and all different types of music. I write songs all the time.
PPM: Have you done any recordings so far and are you working on any? Elias: No, but I am planning on recording a piano album. Zion: Not on piano yet, but I put together a compilation of my original songs in an album called “My World At 9 Years”, where I sing and play all the instruments. I recorded it all by myself. I was young and had no experience recording so it sounded pretty amateur as I had a lot to learn then. Now, I’m working on recording my next album of original songs called “My World at 10 Years.” You can look for it soon on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, etc.
People can mess with your brain, and it can drive you insane
You think that you know all the answers but it just doesn’t pay
Just think for yourself, you don’t need any help
The inside of you knows exactly what to do
Keep away the monster, imposter, he’ll exhaust you, he’ll cost you
He’ll drown you, he’ll hound you, bind you, bound you,
Break free of the chains, it’ll renew your brain, and your spirit flies high like a bird in the sky!
– Lyrics from Zion Phoenix’ Song “The Know-It-All”
PPM: Do you play piano every day? If so, how much? Elias&Zion: We don’t have a schedule, but I play every day.
Elias: The first time I performed at Carnegie Hall was really special, because it was my first big venue. I was so proud and excited that when I was done, I went in the streets of New York City telling everyone I saw that I had just played at Carnegie Hall!!!
PPM: What have been your favorite recital venues so far? Do you have any interesting stories to share about them? Elias: There was something amazing about every venue I have performed at. Every time I’ve performed at Carnegie Hall was great. The first time I performed at Carnegie Hall was really special, because it was my first big venue. I was so proud and excited that when I was done, I went in the streets of New York City telling everyone I saw that I had just played at Carnegie Hall!!! I happened to bump right into Brandon Stanton (MGBH) from the Humans of New York blog, and he asked if he could take my picture. We didn’t even know who he was and had never heard of the blog, but my Mom said yes. It turned out the picture he took of me right after performing at Carnegie Hall was popular on his blog, and he put it in his NY Times #1 bestselling book last year, Humans Of New York: Stories, page 363. So, that amazing night is sort of encapsulated in that one picture that is now in a bestselling book, and that’s really special to me. The Segerstrom Center was great because it was a sold-out concert, and I received a standing ovation. At the historic Balboa Theater, I also received a standing ovation, and it was sold-out, but I loved the Balboa Theatre because I got to see my name in lights. The Pasadena Civic Auditorium, where we filmed the audition for America’s Got Talent, was really special, it felt great to perform for the judges and felt amazing when the audience leapt to their feet. All of the venues I’ve played are great, and I feel honored to have performed in 11 different countries. Zion: Carnegie Hall, America’ s Got Talent, and the Ellen Show’s Studio were all really special to me. I love performing at nursing homes. We’ve had some great experiences with the patients who have gotten up to dance or taken part in making music, and those are really special memories. I also love street performing. My brother and I spent hours performing on a street piano across from the Eiffel Tower entertaining people. I love impromptu performing.
Zion: I also love street performing. My brother and I spent hours performing on a street piano across from the Eiffel Tower entertaining people. I love impromptu performing.
PPM: When was your first TV interview? Elias: My first interview was on ABC Action News. Zion: My first interview was when I was 7 years old on a news station. It was so fun. It was my first experience seeing a professional film crew and how interviews are done and seeing myself on TV later!
PPM: What makes you more nervous: performing on stage or giving live interviews, if at all? Elias: I never get nervous. I pride myself on that. Zion: None really, but if I had to pick one, probably live interviews, because you never know what they might ask you!
PPM: Why did you decide to apply to America’s Got Talent and what was the process like for you? I have read that you withdrew from the Judge Cut competition. Why? Elias: We just saw the show and thought it would be cool if we auditioned. So, we auditioned, and it was so exciting when we got to go before the judges and got 4 yes’s! It was a great experience, and I wish we had been able to participate in the Judges’ Cuts, but we had a prior commitment in Germany during that time. I still regret it. Zion: We just thought it would be fun to audition, so we went to Orlando to try out. There were thousands and thousands of people there, and it took all day, but it was worth it. It was a long, but fun experience!
PPM: What have been your favorite places to travel so far and why? Elias: Taiwan is great, because everybody is so kind. England was great, too, and their tea was great. There was also this thing in English convenience stores called Fry’s Turkish delight, and it’s a rose-flavored Turkish delight covered in milk chocolate. I’m not a big fan of chocolate, but that Turkish delight was so good that it made me change my opinion. France is probably the best country I’ve ever been to. If I could buy a house anywhere in the whole entire world, it would be in Paris, France. The people were as sweet as the pastries and crepes they sold. The Eiffel Tower is awesome, too. France gave me a great feeling that I will never forget. Zion: Taiwan, because everyone was so nice there. But I also loved France, mainly because I got to eat my dessert first. London was really nice, I love their lifestyle! I enjoy getting to see cultures other than my own and observe how other people live. You know, I pretty much love any place I go. I love traveling and feel very lucky to have been able to travel to 11 different countries.
PPM: Do you have pets at home? Elias: Yes, we have German shepherds. German Shepherds tend to bond with one person, and a male that bonded with me is my favorite. He is the son of one of the 2016 world champions in Germany. His name is Leo, and he is a 3-year-old long-coat German Shepherd. He is like a big giant teddy bear. I sleep with him every night. He is the smartest dog I have ever known. He loves to play ball, and when he wants me to play with him, he finds a ball and nudges it to me. He is the best dog ever. We also have cats. The cat that bonded with me is an orange tabby named Teddy Graham. I have talked about him on Twitter, and many of my fans know about him. He is amazing. Leo and Teddy are the best pets ever. Zion: Yes, I have beautiful German Shepherds. The one I am closest to is named Maja. She is an adorable female long-haired German Shepard. I actually cried of happiness when I first got her. I really love all our pets.
PPM: What are your hobbies other than playing piano? Elias: I collect coins, and I have every type of coin of the twentieth century in a blue velvet box. I am also interested in creating visual effects, making videos with special effects and using CGI and creating 3d animation. Zion: I really like science, especially physics and astronomy. I also love ballet, art, photography, singing, guitar, dancing, and acting. As I mentioned earlier, I enjoy writing music and I have also written a science book.
PPM: What is your favorite food? Elias: Grilled swordfish, pumpkin ravioli, chimichangas, burritos, lamb gyros, knishes, Crème Brûlée, and Fry’s Turkish Delight. One of my favorite holidays is Thanksgiving, because my mom makes the best food ever. Zion: My Mom’s vegan macaroni and cheese. I’ve been a vegan for about 2 years.
Elias: I really appreciate and love my fans. It’s a great feeling to know you have a group of supporters who are always behind you no matter what.
PPM: Do you like interacting with your audience? Please, give us examples if there are any when you had direct contact with your audience before or after a performance? Elias: I think music is a universal language. You can express emotions with music that you can’t express with words. I interact with my audience all the time through music. I also have a Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram account where I interact with my fans as well. Sometimes, when I’m done doing a big show (like The Ellen Show, Little Big Shots, or something like that), we do something fun afterward to celebrate. For instance, sometimes when we’re done recording a show in Hollywood, we go to Universal Studios Hollywood. Sometimes, people come up to me and say they were in the audience and they loved my performance or they just saw me on TV. I really appreciate and love my fans. It’s a great feeling to know you have a group of supporters who are always behind you no matter what. Zion: Sometimes, after a show people from the audience will give me a thumbs up or they will come up to me and say “Good job!,” or something. People often recognize me from television and come up and say positive things to me. It’s really great to have people support and encourage me.
PPM: Do you speak or are you learning any languages other than English? Elias&Zion: We both know some Spanish.
PPM: What do you usually do on weekends? Elias: Sometimes we take road trips. Go to concerts, museums, the beach, just whatever we feel like. Zion: All different things. Sometimes we just stay home and sometimes we travel. One of my favorite things is when we have a movie night and have popcorn with M&Ms!
Zion:I take pride in the things about myself that are “different” from others and try not to let bad things people say affect me.
PPM: You are very active in social media. Does each of you have your own cell phones to post from? Have you ever experienced bullying online and if so, how did you deal with it? Would you have any suggestions to young kids or teenagers who have to deal with cyber-bullying? Elias: We don’t have phones or iPads, we post on our mom’s phone. People have called me names and insulted me online. In my opinion, the best thing to do is just ignore and know that whatever people say, it’s their problem and not yours. Zion: We have had people online call us names, but we don’t let it affect us. When I was first teased about my hair when I was 4, I was really hurt, and my mom asked if I wanted to cut it, and I thought about it. But I decided that I wouldn’t cut my hair because someone was teasing or bullying me about it because that didn’t seem like a good reason to me. Since then I take pride in the things about myself that are “different” from others and try not to let bad things people say affect me.
PPM: What performances do you have planned for the upcoming year? Elias&Zion: We just performed on the Harry Connick Jr show, and Elias is going to perform again at Carnegie Hall, and some other things are in the works.
PPM: Thank you, Elias and Zion for such an interesting interview! Good luck to you both and, please, continue being the two bright shiny stars that you are.
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He plays piano with utmost passion and excitement, and his smile is contagious to anyone who catches it. Brandon Goldberg (MGBH), an 11-year-old Floridian, a gifted jazz piano player, has conquered the hearts of many, including mine. Will he win yours, too?
PPM: Please, tell us about your participation in the TEDx. Did you have to practice your speech a lot? Did you have help writing it or did you do it yourself? BG: My mom made me write the speech by myself. She said, “Just tell your story.” So, I went to my room, and I wrote it down. Then, she helped me organize my thoughts and put it all together. The whole TEDxYouth@Miami experience was great – all the kids selected to participate would meet at the Cushman School every Saturday morning for several months to rehearse in front of each other. Arvi Balseiro (MGBH), Principal of the Cushman School, and Lisa Herbert (MGBH) would give us feedback on our speech. They did it in such nice a way that it gave everyone the confidence to present in front of a big audience. At first, some of us were nervous, but at the end, everyone memorized their speeches. They helped us become better speakers and it was fun getting to know the other kids. On the last practice day, they brought in the red circle that TED is famous for, and we all had to practice speaking and staying on the circle. It was fun.
PPM: How did you first start composing music? BG: I first started composing music when I had an idea and I wanted to develop it. I really wanted to express my thoughts. I asked my parents for some manuscript paper and then I just went from there. Soon enough I started using Sibelius and Finale, and eventually I started using Logic Pro X to record.
PPM: Did/do you study classical piano with a teacher? BG: Yes, I currently study classical piano with Paul Posnak (MGBH), a retired professor from University of Miami Frost School of Music. He is a good fit for me, because he can teach classical and also appreciates other genres of music. He’s best known for his note-for-note transcriptions of Fats Waller and George Gershwin (OBM) Improvisations.
PPM: Who was your first piano teacher? BG: Well, my first unofficial piano teacher was a Russian lady, Ina (MGBH), who lived around the corner. I think I was three or four, but I was too young to stay focused. Then I worked with, Rosa Rabinovich (MGBH), a teacher at our elementary school for a little while. Eventually, I switched over to Mila Vaserstein (MGBH), when I was five years old. I studied with Mila for about three years.
My first Jazz teacher was Markus Gottschlich (MGBH). He taught me a lot and introduced me to Wendy Oxenhorn (MGBH) at the Jazz Foundation of America. I’ll always be grateful to him.
PPM: Does anyone in your family play piano? BG: Not really. My mother took piano lessons when she was younger for about 5 years, but she she stopped playing.
PPM: Do you have any siblings? If so, do they play an instrument? BG: Yes, I have a younger sister, Aubrey (MGBH). She’s more into sports, especially gymnastics. She’s really good at gymnastics and dance.
PPM: You speak eloquently in from the audiences. How is speaking in front of people different from performing? BG: Thank you. Speaking in front of people is different because I use words to share my experiences and my story. I try to choose my words carefully to make sure I get the right message across. With performing, it’s more fluid and spontaneous. I really try to inspire people through my music.
My first introduction to jazz was through an old Rat Pack Movie that I watched at my grandparents’ house. I became somewhat obsessed with the Rat Pack and everything about them…
PPM: Who introduced you to jazz and what was the first jazz song that you learned? BG: My first introduction to jazz was through an old Rat Pack Movie that I watched at my grandparents’ house. I became somewhat obsessed with the Rat Pack and everything about them…how they carried themselves, what they wore. Then I started watching old concert videos of Frank Sinatra (OBM) with Tony Bennett (MGBH), Ella Fitzgerald (OBM), and many other singers from the Great American Songbook era. There was one Frank Sinatra concert with Oscar Peterson (OBM) on the piano and that was it – I just loved the sound of jazz, and it excited me. From there, I listened to the Oscar Peterson and Bill Evans (OBM) collaborations with Tony Bennett and just kept listening. I would probably say the first standard I learned was “Fly Me to the Moon”.
PPM: Tell us about meeting Tony Bennett and Joshua Bell (MGBH). What was special about meeting those men and what did you speak to them about? BG: I’ve been lucky enough to see Tony Bennett in concert four times – and I’ve been able to meet him after each show. There’s always a long line of people to meet Mr. Bennett, so we don’t really have time to talk. I wish I could really spend some time with him and play the piano for him. It would be a dream come true to accompany him.
I got to meet Tony Bennett’s whole band once. They were really nice, and each band member autographed the set list for me. That was really special.
I met Joshua Bell briefly after his performance at Tanglewood. He encouraged me to keep playing. My parents also met Joshua Bell at a YoungArts event in Miami (I wasn’t there). He told them the story of how, when he was little, he used to put rubber bands on the knobs of his dresser drawers to create different sounds. My mom shared that story with me, and I even put that into my TEDx speech. It inspired my theme…everyone has their own instrument; you just need to take the time to find it.
People always tell me I’m an old soul.
PPM: Do you feel your age or do you sometimes feel older? Do you have older friends? Do you have a preference of having friends your age or older? BG: People always tell me I’m an old soul. It’s hard to know what an older person feels like, but sometimes it is easier to connect with older kids and adults, especially if we can talk about music. I have friends my age and a few older friends that I play music with. To me age is only a number, but I am only 11 so I may need some more life experience.
PPM: Do you go to school or are you home schooled? BG: I go to a regular school. Next year, I’ll be going to a performing arts middle school.
PPM: What are your favorite subjects to learn? BG: I like Math because the numbers and equations relate to music. PPM: What are some of your most memorable performances? BG: I have a few… Definitely the time Monty Alexander, one of my heroes, surprised me for my 10th birthday and invited me onstage at Jazz at Lincoln Center to play “Fly Me to the Moon” with his band. That was awesome. I also got to play at the famous Apollo Theatre at the Jazz Foundation of America’s A Great Night in Harlem. I was invited there to honor McCoy Tyner (MGBH) as he received his lifetime achievement award. That was really cool. There were a lot of amazing musicians performing that night – Dr. John (MFBH), John Batiste (MFBH), John Mayer (MFBH), just to name a few.
Recently, I played at another Jazz Foundation of America event in Los Angeles at Herb Alpert’s club – Vibrato Grill. I got to meet Patti Austin (MGBH) and the amazing Merry Clayton (MGBH), who sang “You Are So Beautiful to Me” while I accompanied her on the piano. That was impromptu and really fun! I also met the one and only – Mr. Quincy Jones (MGBH). That was cool.
Harry Connick Jr. (MGBH) was also pretty great. It was nice talking to him – I feel like he understood me and it was really fun to jam with him on the piano. His band was really great, too!
I like Frank Sinatra, because he used his voice as an instrument. The variation and his phrasing of the lyrics and songs was like an improviser playing with the melody.
PPM: Why do you like Frank Sinatra (OBM)? BG: I like Frank Sinatra, because he used his voice as an instrument. The variation and his phrasing of the lyrics and songs was like an improviser playing with the melody. I always like the arrangements that he sang that were done by Quincy Jones and Nelson Riddle (OBM).
PPM: Do you have other kids pianist friends? BG: Not really, but I do have a good friend that plays guitar really well. I also have some friends that are in high school that I like to jam with.
PPM: Does your family take road trips? If so, where do you go? BG: Sometimes we drive to Disney World or Universal Studios, since we live in Florida. We like go to the Berkshires in the summer for our family vacations and we’ve gone skiing the last few winters, but we fly to those places.
PPM: Do you have pets at home? BG: No, but I would love a dog. My sister and I have been begging for a dog.
PPM: What are your responsibilities at home? BG: I make my bed, keep my room clean, do well in school, and practice piano. I work on composing and playing in my Dad’s office at home, so he is always telling me to clean up all my wires, instruments, and cases.
PPM: What do you do on weekends? BG: I have my classical piano lessons on Saturdays, and we’re usually busy with events or performances. I usually have homework to do on the weekends, but if we have free time, I like to swim or just hang out at home, compose music, and play on my Fender Rhodes vintage keyboard. If there is a jazz concert or a show in town, we try to go to that.
PPM: What is your biggest dream? BG: I want a successful career playing and making music. I want to record and play my own compositions along with the top artists in Jazz.
My favorite book to read and re-read is Herbie Hancock’s (MGBH) autobiography, “Possibilities.” My mom says that it may not be age appropriate, but it’s really interesting.
PPM: What books do you like to read? BG: My favorite book to read and re-read is Herbie Hancock’s (MGBH) autobiography, “Possibilities.” My mom says that it may not be age appropriate, but it’s really interesting.
I got to meet Herbie Hancock after a concert he did in Miami. He was so kind and inspiring. We talked about music, and he autographed my book and album covers. He wrote some really nice messages to me. He’s amazing, and I really look up to him.
PPM: Do you speak any foreign languages? BG: I can understand Russian and speak it a little. My mother was born in the Ukraine.
PPM: Have you travelled outside the US? If so, what was the trip you enjoyed the most? BG: The only time I’ve been out of the US was on a cruise to the Caribbean we took with my family.
PPM: Do you like to be funny and make people laugh? BG: I like to make people laugh, but that seems to mostly happen unintentionally.
PPM: Do you have any recorded CDs? BG: Not yet, that is my goal in the next year or so.
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Emily Bear (MGBH) is a young pianist and composer with a beautiful heart. Her enthusiasm for music is inspirational and contagious. A role model for many young girls around the world, she maintains her modesty and sense of direction. Here are some insights into what it’s like to be her.
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PPM: Please, tell us about your family. From other interviews we know that your grandmother is a pianist and a piano teacher. What about your mother and father? What are their occupations? EB: My Mom was a voice major at University of Michigan Musical Theater Department. She also teaches piano and voice privately and has a Masters from Columbia University in NYC in Music Education. My Dad is an orthopedic surgeon specializing in Hand & Upper Extremity Surgery. He trained at the Mayo Clinic and Hospital For Special Surgery in NYC. He is the only one in the family who doesn’t play an instrument but is a huge supporter of all of our interests (and has become a great Harp mover for my sister!) PPM: What do you siblings do now that they are older? They learned to play instruments, too. Do you play music together sometimes? EB: My sister plays the Harp and Piano. She is the Principal Harpist with the Rockford Symphony Youth Orchestra and has played with several professional orchestra’s as well. I love to play with Lauren (MGBH) and have accompanied her on the harp as well as played harp-piano versions of my original music with her. Lauren is also a competitive figure skater, skating at the Novice Level (all the double jumps) and her competition music for her skating program is one of my original orchestral pieces! My brother plays piano, guitar and tenor saxophone. He doesn’t play sax that much any more since he is in college now and not playing with a jazz band anymore. His main hobby is photography. I love playing music with my siblings. Sometimes my brother and I will play 4 hands on one piano, and my sister and I will play 2-piano duets as we have 2 grand pianos back to back in our living room. Or I will play piano, my sister harp and my brother wither on the other piano or on his guitar.
Sometimes my brother and I will play 4 hands on one piano, and my sister and I will play 2-piano duets as we have 2 grand pianos back to back in our living room.
PPM: Tell us about your Ravinia experience at 5 years old. Do you have a memory of it? EB: I remember being super excited for the concert and doing cartwheels backstage. Once I got on stage, I was super focused. The concert music was 1/3 classical, 1/3 jazz and 1/3 my own music that I composed. I remember that I played a song that I had composed that week for my sister called “Little Angels”. I really love performing at Ravinia – it is a very special place for me.
PPM: When you write music for an orchestra, do you use a software like MuseScore or similar? EB: I compose using LogicPro. I first create a mock up using orchestral instrument samples, layering them one by one. Then I input each note into Finale (a music notation software program) to make the music ready to print for the orchestra.
PPM: What inspires you in writing music? EB: It could be anything, the weather, a person, a place, something that had just happened. “Snowdance” was composed after I noticed the snow swirling from the wind outside my window by my piano. I composed “Northern Lights” after reading a Magic Treehouse book on the North Pole. I asked my Mom what an Aurora Borealis was. She showed me video’s of the rainbow lights in the sky on Youtube. “Final Journey” was composed after a very close family friend passed away and “Les Voyages”, an orchestral piece was based on the book Homer’s Odyssey, which I was reading in English Class at school! I was awarded the ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer of the Year Award for “Northern Lights” when I was 6 years old out of a 30 and under age category.
PPM: What was your first composition and at what age did you write it? EB: I composed my first real pieces when I was 3 years old. A couple of my earliest pieces are called, “Crystal Ice” and “Sunday Morning.” Hal Leonard Music has been publishing music I composed since I was 4 years old. I currently have 5 sheet music songbooks distributed worldwide and 2 sheet music singles. It is so cool to hear other people playing my music – even using them for recital pieces! A teenager recently won the grand prize in the senior division in a classical music competition performing my piece, “Peralada.”
I composed my first real pieces when I was 3 years old. A couple of my earliest pieces are called, “Crystal Ice” and “Sunday Morning.”
PPM: What charities do you raise money for? EB: It has always been really important to me to give back through my music. Each of my 7 CD’s have profits designated for different charities. Some of these include Children’s Hospitals of Los Angeles and Chicago, The Ronald McDonald House, PAWS Pet Rescue, & Cancer Charities. I also like to perform at charity benefits, concerts and galas around the world and have helped raise millions of dollars for various charities. One of my favorite concerts was when I performed for the kids at a summer camp for children with cancer. I still have the friendship bracelet they made for me.
PPM: What is your relationship with classical music vs pop vs jazz? EB: Classical is my base and foundation, Jazz is where I can express my freedom, Pop is fun yet harder than you would think! Last April I performed the Grieg Piano Concerto in A minor, and in October performed Rhapsody In Blue by Gershwin (OBM). I love learning and performing classical works as well as my own orchestral music. Performing jazz is like a conversation with the other musicians I am playing with. Writing and singing pop music is another way to communicate things that I am feeling and can relate to. For example, one of the songs I recently wrote is about a friend who was getting bullied at school.
PPM: Has your mom ever make you practice piano? EB: Never. It’s actually a rule in our family that if we have an interest, whether it is piano, figure skating or whatever – that it is our responsibility to be prepared for lessons. When I was little, she would sit with me as I practiced, but that was more for company. It has also been stressed to me and my siblings that you need to have a passion for what you do, work hard and try your best but most important – keep it fun.
It has also been stressed to me and my siblings that you need to have a passion for what you do, work hard and try your best but most important – keep it fun.
PPM: Do you have your daily routine in practicing piano? How many hours a day do you practice? If not every day, what are your practice patterns? Do you take days off music? EB: Every day is different depending on what concerts are coming up, when my lessons are, how much schoolwork I have, if I am focusing on a new music composition. It is definitely never boring. I might work on classical piano after school then get an idea for a piece and run upstairs to compose and then start playing some jazz or reviewing for a concert. It is never the same!
PPM: How often do you travel for concerts? EB: I travel often for concerts, for music lessons in NYC and Chicago as well as songwriting sessions in Los Angeles. I really love traveling!
PPM: You have been a recipient of ASCAP jazz award. Did you formally study jazz? If so, who were your teachers? EB: I have studied jazz piano since I was 5 years old. My first jazz teacher was Alan Swain in Chicago. I also study jazz with Frank Kimbrough from Juilliard Jazz Department. I was really honored to be awarded the ASCAP Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Award in 2016 and now in 2017 as well. My new CD, Into The Blue, a collection of original jazz tunes performed with my trio reached #5 on Billboard Charts. Quincy Jones has been my mentor for many years and he is a huge influence on my music.
PPM: Please, tell our readers about your experience of playing at the White House. How did that happen? EB: We received a phone call from the White House asking me to perform at the White House Easter Celebration. They asked me to perform 2 concerts in the East Room. It was surreal to be able to walk through the rooms of the White House and to meet the President.
PPM: Do you have a pianist/piano performer role model that you grew up with as a child? EB: I like Lang Lang (MGBH), because he is very well respected in the classical world yet is bringing classical music to other mediums and does a lot of outreach with education as well. PPM: What were some of the most interesting collaborations so far and who do you aspire working with in the future?
EB: I love collaborating with all musicians – I learn different things from each of them and it is always so much fun. I loved collaborating with Zuill Bailey, Grammy Award winning classical cellist, and I love performing and working with musicians from all musical styles. Gloria Estefan (MGBH), Patti Austin (MGBH), Esperanza Spalding (MGBH), Melissa Manchester (MGBH), David Sanborn (MGBH), Lucy Simon (MGBH), Quincy Jones (MGBH), Makoto Ozone (MGBH)…
PPM: What attracts you to composing for film? If you were to become a film composer, how would you choose your films? In what instances would you say no? EB: I love composing for film because of how music adds such critical emotional layers to the movie. I would have to make sure I was comfortable composing in the style of that film.
PPM: What are some of your favorite moments in performing for audiences? EB: My favorite performances have been: The White House, Carnegie Hall, Art On Ice (Zurich, Switzerland), Montreux Jazz Festival, Hollywood Bowl, Hangzou,China. When I arranged an original piece I composed to be played by 25 piano’s at the same time in 5 parts (a piano orchestra) for a concert at the Mesa Performing Arts Center last year.
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Jacob Velazquez (MGBH) from Miami, FL comes with a special and unique story. Around the same time his family discovered his talent, they also learned about his autism spectrum. Instead of feeding the Darkness, they chose to feed the Light. With many studies indicating that children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) respond well to music, the family decided to use Jacob’s diagnosis as an opportunity to inspire others. Jacob frequently talks about autism during his performances and interviews, gives concerts dedicated to this charitable cause, and simply embodies the idea of making lemonade out of lemons.
We interviewed Jacob (in black), his mother Tina (MGBH) (in blue), and his father William (MGBH) (in brown) for the magazine. And here is what they had to say.
Piano Performer Magazine (PPM): Jacob, do you play piano every day? Jacob Velazquez (JV): I take lessons two days per week with my teacher and i practice most other days with my dad.
PPM: What are your hobbies? JV: My hobbies are playing drums, playing outside, watching TV and reading books.
PPM: What are your favorite toys and games do you like to play with? JV: My favorite toy right now is my Elf on the Shelf. He’s not really a toy because he comes alive at night and moves around the house. My favorite game to play is chess.
PPM: Do you go to a traditional school or are you home schooled? JV: I go to a traditional public school.
PPM: What music are you currently working on? JV: I’m working on the Hayden (OBM) Concerto in D Major, Fantaisie-Impromptu by Chopin (OBM), and a Christmas medley I’m doing for a fundraiser for Autism Speaks.
PPM: How did you decide to record your first album? JV: We met with a music producer Hal Batt (MGBH) when I was six. He came up with a concept and we decided to record it.
PPM: Do you play piano for your schoolmates? JV: Yes, sometimes.
I would love to work with Taylor Swift (MGBH), Bruno Mars (MGBH), Yanni (MGBH), Joh Katodo (MGBH), a drummer from Australia, and The Miami Symphony Orchestra.
PPM: What musicians do you dream of working with? JV: I would love to work with Taylor Swift (MGBH), Bruno Mars (MGBH), Yanni (MGBH), Joh Katodo (MGBH), a drummer from Australia, and The Miami Symphony Orchestra.
PPM: How long does it take you to memorize one page of music? JV: One to a few days depending how difficult the piece is.
PPM: Who and at what age taught you to read music? JV: My first teacher, Ms. Jaffird (MGBH), taught me to read music when I was 4 years old.
PPM: Do you write your own music? JV: I’m not writing yet, but I like to improvise.
PPM: What are your biggest challenges when it comes to piano and piano performance and how do you overcome them? JV: My biggest challenge with piano is mastering my technique. I just have keep practicing and try to remember the things my teacher tells me.
PPM: Have you ever been nervous on stage? If so, how did you handle it? JV: I don’t get nervous on stage. It’s not scary, its just fun!
PPM: How do you use your imagination when performing on stage or recording your music? JV: I use my imagination to be enthusiastic and funny. I like to entertain people.
PPM: Do you have siblings? If so, please, tell the readers a little bit about them. JV: I have a little sister named Skylar (MGBH). She’s 4 years old, and she likes to be like me. She just started taking piano lessons. She also likes to dance and sing. I have two older brothers. Brandon (MGBH) is 23, lives in California and works for the Coast Guard. He loves music and dancing and he’s a really great D.J. Tyler (MGBH) is 21. He goes to college at Florida State University in Tallahassee, FL. He plays piano, too, and also loves to dance.
PPM: Tina, we know that for children to be successful, it is important for parents to keep on top of things. What does it take to be a mother of a talented child pianist? Tina Velazquez (TV): I don’t think what I do is much different than most other parents; scheduling their child’s after school activities, running them here and there, encouraging them to do their best, making sure their lives are balanced between school, play, homework, extra curricular activities etc.
PPM: Who maintains Jacob’s website, takes calls from reporters, manages Jacob’s performance life? TV: My husband and I have worked on the website together however I am the one who maintains it for the most part. I’ll typically screen the initial call to find out what they’re looking for. When Jacob was younger, say 5 and 6 years old, he didn’t do much talking it was mostly just about performing. Now he loves talking to reporters and anyone else who will listen! I filter all of the initial inquiries through Jacob’s webpage and social media. My husband and I always make the final decision together based on what we feel is best for Jacob. Willie and I work with Jacob to manage all aspects of his performances.
PPM: Do you have a job outside being the boss and the nurturer of your household? TV: I volunteer in my daughter’s preschool classroom, however, my family takes up most of my time.
PPM: Can’t avoid this question: how did you start talking to Jacob about his diagnosis? TV: I decided to start talking to him about it when he was about 5 years old. At that time I felt he could understand & wanted him to here it from me. I got some children’s books that explained autism from his counselor at The Center for Autism & Related Disabilities. We talked about how a person with autism’s brain worked a little differently than someone without autism, and how that made them unique. I also showed him a quote from Taylor Swift “If you’re lucky enough to be different, don’t ever change.” I continue talking to him about it whenever I feel it’s necessary.
PPM: What is your message to other families with autistic children? TV: Millions of families this year will receive the news that their child is on the autism spectrum. These families have two choices at that point, in my opinion. 1) Let this diagnosis take away your hope for your child’s future; or 2) let this be a driving force and fight to ensure your child will become anything and everything they deserve to be in this life. As a member of the autism community, I feel drawn and responsible to encourage my fellow families to put their focus on the things their child can do, rather than the things they cannot.
PPM: And under what circumstances did Jacob decide that he would take on upon himself to represent and inspire the children with autism through his performance? TV: It’s kind of funny because when you talk with Jacob, you can get the sense that he’s not really listening. He’s usually jumping on/off the couch or making drum beats on the table. I wasn’t even sure if he heard or grasped some of the things I discussed with him about autism, until he began talking about it during a performance. He pretty much reiterated everything I had been telling him. He got a great response from the crowd and has been talking about it ever since.
PPM: Do you speak with Jacob about fame and success and what it means in the real world? TV: Jacob and I often talk about how everyone has their own talents and things that they excel at while, at the same time, we all have things we struggle with. Jacob happens to be gifted musically which, along with his hard work, has opened the doors for him to travel to a lot of fun places and meet some great people.
PPM: What tools are you equipping him with to handle the potentials flip side of fame? TV: With each event, my husband, and I always try to prepare Jacob based on what we are expecting him to be presented with. With that being said, Jacob is blessed with a very humble disposition. He truly cares about others and is the first to notice and celebrate the successes of friends, family and fellow musicians. Jacob gives sincere words of approval to others when they are practicing. He loves when people cheer for him, not so much because he is proud of himself, but because he is truly pleased that listening to his music has made them happy. We’ve witnessed him step back to allow fellow performers to get praise. This is how Jacob sees himself in relation to others with regard to his music.
PPM: How do you manage balancing his professional career at such early age with being a kid? TV: Being a kid is Jacobs #1 job. We have turned down events before because he had a friend’s birthday party to attend just needed some down time. I am Jacob’s mom, his advocate, and his biggest fan. My husband and I manage all aspects of his life. We wouldn’t give up this control because no one will ever truly consider Jacob’s best interest the way we will.
Being a kid is Jacobs #1 job. We have turned down events before because he had a friend’s birthday party to attend just needed some down time.
PPM: William, from video interviews we know that you play piano, and Jacob has been hearing you play since he was a little baby. Are you a professional pianist? Where did you get your training? William Velazquez: I very much enjoy playing the piano, however, I am not a professional pianist. I began playing when I was 7 years old on an organ we had in the house. Soon after I attended a local piano school, and at 10 years old I attended a conservatory school of music for 2 years. Afterwards, I had private lessons at my parents house for several years. In high school I played keyboard in a band we named Excelle. We played local gigs in the New York area.
PPM: When your family discovered Jacob’s talent, did he ask for lessons? How did things progress from that moment on? WV: At the time we noticed Jacob’s ability he was very speech delayed, but we felt he would benefit from piano lessons. At first, it was difficult finding someone willing to teach a 4 year old, but, fortunately, we found someone, and Jacob began training with her. I have also taught Jacob a few short pieces.
PPM: Do you participate in your son’s “piano life” (recordings, practice, performances) or if it mostly a responsibility of your wife? WV: I enjoy practicing with Jacob and playing for him as well. He and I have worked on a few medleys together. I recently worked with him on the National Anthem, which he performed at the American Airlines Arena for the Miami Heat game. I was also very involved with his album and his concerts.
Being on the autism spectrum, Jacob has struggled with his emotions. I think music is helping him express his own emotions as well as better understanding others.
PPM: How do you think Jacob’s piano life helps in building his character? WV: Being on the autism spectrum, Jacob has struggled with his emotions. I think music is helping him express his own emotions as well as better understanding others.
PPM: What is the most surprising thing you learned about your son through the piano discovering journey? WV: I am amazed of how much he has progressed in such a short period of time, and how quickly he is able to memorize a piano piece regardless of the size. I also recently discovered that Jacob has perfect pitch, which means he can identify notes and chords being played on the piano without looking.
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