Teen shows master's touch

Working hard at piano, Patrick Merrill, 14, plays far beyond his years

October 22, 2006|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,Special to The Sun

When Patrick Merrill started taking piano lessons at the age of 7, he was playing simple notes and melodies.

But it wasn't long before his parents noticed how naturally Patrick was mastering difficult classical piano pieces.

His mother, Brenda Merrill, recalled a lesson where he was learning to play a Mozart sonata.

"I had seven years of lessons, and I never learned to play the piece," she said. "Patrick learned more in 10 minutes than I could learn in a month. That stuck in my head."

Since then, Patrick's intensity, dedication and musical talent has blossomed beyond his 14 years. And he's reaping the benefits of his hard work. He recently finished recording his first CD and he has been selected to play as a soloist in the prestigious Community Concerts at Second Youth Festival in Baltimore.

For Patrick, playing the piano was something he excelled at from the moment his fingers first touched the keyboard of the Yamaha grand piano he plays at his Kingsville home.

But when he started playing the piano, he wasn't inspired by aspirations to open at Carnegie Hall. It was simpler than that. The family had a piano, and Patrick found the feel of the keyboard intriguing.

"Playing the piano is personal. It's a touch instrument," said Patrick, who aspires to attend the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. "And there's a wide variety of sounds that you can conjure from a piano."

After taking private lessons for about three years, Patrick wanted something more challenging.

He started attending an intensive summer camp offered at the Maryland Conservatory of Music in Bel Air. During the weeklong camp, he was taught music theory and music literature.

"Once he experienced the Maryland Conservatory of Music environment, that's what he wanted," said his mother. "He had a hunger to learn more and I wanted to feed his desire."

So at the age of 11, Patrick stopped his private lessons and began more formal instruction with Duke Thompson, the founder and director of the conservatory.

"From the start, Patrick was more comfortable with the faculty and staff than [with] the students," Brenda said. "But now he's comfortable with everyone."

Patrick, a sophomore at the Baltimore School for the Arts, refers to his time at the nonprofit music conservatory as one of the highlights of his seven-year music education.

"It's been a period of enlightenment," said Patrick, who plays as many as five hours a day.

And Thompson, who has played the piano for more than 40 years, said his time with Patrick is a co-learning experience.

"Patrick quickly grasped musical concepts not typically understood until the college level," said Thompson. "I could hear that he wanted to do something more with his music. He went from playing early intermediate to playing major repertoires."

And if that isn't enough, Patrick does it using his own original style.

"I teach students the technical mechanics of music," Thompson said. "But then I try not to spoon-feed music to the students. I try to get them to let it come from themselves. Patrick naturally brings his music from within."

But how it sounds changes every few minutes, said Patrick.

"Sometimes I can hear myself play and be pleased with what I hear," he said. "And at other times I have mental breakdowns where my fingers and my brain don't work together, and I wonder if maybe I shouldn't play the piano anymore. For me, piano can be very encouraging and very discouraging."

But his doubts don't keep him from undertaking new challenges.

More than a year ago, Patrick and Thompson were engaging in conversations about Johann Sebastian Bach's "Two-Part Inventions." Patrick was immediately enthusiastic about recording the pieces on a CD.

Over the next six months, Patrick practiced the pieces and recorded them five at a time in three separate recording sessions on an Austrian Feurich piano.

However, although Patrick was excited about the idea of creating a CD, it took a lot of practice to perfect his music, he said.

"I practiced over and over again," he said. "If you make a mistake on a recording it's there forever. Recording on a CD is immortal in a scary way."

But the final product turned out exceptional, said Christopher Ford, the head of the music department at the Baltimore School for the Arts.

"The technology of recording a CD is not difficult," said Ford, who has been at the school for 27 years. "But the artistic level of the music Patrick played for the CD is rare for someone his age. And creating something with such thoroughness and understanding at such a young age is rather special."

Thompson concurred.

There aren't many recordings of all of Bach's "Two-Part Inventions," he said. But because Patrick liked them all, he wanted to record them all.

However, with that labor of love completed, Patrick is practicing for his debut public appearance as the solo performer in the Community Concerts at Second Youth Festival at 3:30 p.m. May 20 next year at Second Presbyterian Church, 4200 St. Paul St., Baltimore.

The Community Concerts at Second is a nonprofit volunteer organization that presents concerts of the best local, regional and national artists. The youth festival showcases the greater Baltimore regions most promising young artists.

And once he has completed that performance, Patrick hopes to move on to making his mark.

"The classical music world and recital formats are decaying," he said. "I think musicians can do a lot to change that."

But for now, he offers some sage advice to aspiring young pianists.

"Younger students may not like piano at first," Patrick said. "So I would tell them to stick with it and give playing the piano a chance. And always try to make the music they play original."

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