Saturday, 20 August 2011

Umi Garrett - Angel Of The Piano

Picture this: You're quite an intellectual, you're not overly keen on pop music, and, being intellectual and somewhat hi-brow, you listen to Radio Three and Radio Four. The music you play on your CD player is mainly classical, the sort that wouldn't appeal to the vast majority of people, certainly not to most young people. So, you're in your armchair, feet up, intent on listening to some sophisticated serious classical music. You're a devoted piano lover, you love Piano Concertos, the Chopin Mazurkas, Nocturnes, Etudes, Mendelssohn compositions, Rachmaninov, Mozart, Beethoven, Debussy, Brahms and many more of that ilk.

You decided to play a DVD of classical piano music, it's Chopin's Fantaisie Impromptu, not the easiest piece in the world to play were you a pianist yourself. You press play, then you sit back and absorb the wonderful sound that is emanating from your hi-fi/television system.

Next night, you go to a concert hall. On the occasion, it's Mozart's Piano Concerto No 23, one of your favourites. You only just managed to get in because it's a sell out, the hall is bursting at the seams and you know that many people have been turned away. The venue is in Florida and the orchestra is the Charlotte Symphony. Are you sitting comfortably? Then they begin; you close your eyes to absorb the music more thoroughly. Maestro Francis Wada raises his baton and the magical moment begins.

With your eyes still closed, in your mind's eye, you try to generate an image of the person who is playing the piece. You see a middle aged man wearing a dickie bow tie, white shirt, coat and tails; the music is becoming very sophisticated - you see his hands flying across the keyboard at the speed of light; his fingers are moving like flies' wings, so fast, your vision wouldn't be able to keep up with them. There is fire coming from the piano, it's just so powerful, your so engrossed, you wonder, "Who can possibly play this piece as well as this, it must be Horowitz or Paderewski, maybe Baremboim, or even Ashkenazy.

But no, now you open your eyes and you can't believe what you see. It's a little girl wearing a beautiful pink dress (her favourite) and sporting a long brown pony tail. Unbelievably, she can be no more than ten years old. There's a close up shot on her hands flying across the keys. You can see there is still puppy fat on the back of her hand and those hands are really tiny. They fly across the keyboard of the Steinway Model D, resulting in music that now has a new dimension.

Now, this girl, apart from her skills, would appear to be a normal ten year old. She chats non-stop, almost as if speaking had only just been discovered and she is determined to get her fair share while it's still available. She has an extremely pleasant disposition, not unlike that of the average very happy 10 year old who loves life, which she lives to the full. She has no airs or graces as one might expect from someone so talented; in fact, if you met her, knowing nothing about her, you wouldn't think there was anything about her that sets her part from all the other children she goes to school with. In some cases, children who have such a profound interest and ability to play hi-brow music such as this, would be very sophisticated, dull and extremely boring as they revel in their intellect. But I detect that the latest generation of children is moving forward in this regard.

Over here in England, we have a very distinguished young pianist called Benjamin Grosvenor who played a Liszt Concerto on the opening night of the BBC Proms this year (2011). When he was aged only 11, he won the keyboard section of the BBC Young Musician of the Year contest, although I strongly suspect only his age prevented him from winning outright, going by the comments of the judges. The winner of that contest qualifies for the European version of the contest but the minimum age for that was 14, so someone older than Benji had to be the winner. However (I'm digressing, I know), he too was an extremely pleasant child with no airs and graces. I saw a documentary on TV about him and his life at school. He was the most popular child in the school, all the kids would sing, "We love you Benji, oh yes we do."  Had he been a swot, and full of himself, he wouldn't have been loved by other kids to this level; in fact, he might have been despised. Another prodigy who is extremely pleasant and bubbly is a little girl called Connie Talbot who hails from the West Midlands here in England. She's a brilliant singer who came second in the 'Britain's Got Talent' contest about three years ago. Like Umi, she never stops smiling, chatting and being just nice and very effervescent. Can you imagine what it would be like if both of these girls were your daughters? There would never be a dull moment in the house.

Back to Umi, there's a video on You Tube called 'My Favourite Things' in which Umi shows us around her home and bedroom. It starts with her playing a small clip of extremely fast music, then she stops, addresses the camera with "Hi, My name is Umi Garrett and I'm a pianist. I'm going to show you my favourite things." She starts by removing her headband and explaining, "This is my  favourite headband; it has flowers on it, and here's my favourite sweater because it has pom poms on it. I like to play with them. " Then she giggles. She then goes on the explain about the dress she's wearing - "…it has flowers on it."  Umi shows us her favourite concert dress and it's true, she does seem to wear that one in all her concert performances. The point I'm making here is that, apart from this girl being extremely advanced in what she does, even more so than the vast majority of adults, there's another side to her that is absolutely normal, no different from other kids of her age. Add to that her lovely and very bubbly personality which for me works like this: were I to get up one morning feeling all groggy and dull, one minute in this girl's presence would elevate me to the height of the world's tallest building (which is currently in Dubai, although not for long).
Umi, the normal average happy go lucky girl
Next, Umi shows us her room - "This is my bed which is (guess what?) pink, that's my favourite colour." Her favourite fluffy ball was bought when she was in China. Umi travels all around the world to play at concerts; most recently to Austria and Italy although she is in Panama right now. She's playing a concert at the Teatro Nacional in Panama this evening (19 August 2011). Next exhibits are from Umi's collection of teddy bears, her favourites are the ones she sleeps with every night. Next, something REALLY amazing - and you thought you'd heard it all didn't you? What more can this genius child do that the rest of humanity can't? She now shows us her favourite stack of books, a pile of about 25 books. They're all in Japanese and Umi has read them all. How can she do that? Not only is it a different language, but the alphabet has to be learned too. They have all patterns, squiggles and weird shapes. So, first you have to learn that, then you start on the vocabulary, the grammar and idioms etc. She speaks both Japanese and English fluently without an accent. My mind has just flown right out of my head - is that the meaning of 'boggled' do you think? Quite how Umi finds the time to do all that she does, amazes me. My day only has 24 hours in it, so sometimes, I have to abandon piano practice to make room for other things that have to be done. I guess Umi's interest in Japan comes from her mom, Fujiko. Her dad is Steve, so I guess he's American. Umi follows on with her favourite toys - all toy food which "I play with them a lot." She shows us several of her toys and explains where in the world she got them - "From everywhere I performed"; a teddy from Mexico, an item still in a gift bag: "……I got when I performed in China, and this I got in Boston."

Umi's family is not musical, she is an only child. Her dad helped with the family furniture store plus he helped develop a business, growing coral for sale to pet shops near their home in California. At the age of 4, Umi begged her parents to let her study piano with her pre-school teacher. By the age of 7, when other kids were still discovering middle C, Umi was well on her way to stardom, playing Bach, Chopin et al..

                                                         Umi the concert pianist

But, what now of this amazing little  American girl? Her abilities don't stop at being a brilliant pianist. She also plays the violin (does anybody know why we use the definite article when referring to musical instruments, but the indefinite article when we mention what vehicles we drive? -digressing again, but that's me and my wandering mind).  We're not done with Umi's favourites yet. She goes on to introduce her favourite composer which are Mozart, then Rachmaninov, then Liszt and Chopin. Then comes the announcement that goes with being a ten year old: "They're all COOL!!" she says as she does a thumbs up gesture with both hands, supported by an ear to ear smile. What's the difference between Umi and the average ten year old following this proclamation? Well, "They're all cool!'" would come from the lips of almost all ten year olds, but others would be referring to Lady Gaga, JLS, Cher Lloyd, BeyoncĂ©, or Adele and not Chopin or Rachmaninov.

What this story is explaining is how a little girl can be just that, a normal little girl on the one hand, and in the blink of an eye, she can become a world standard concert pianist. She finishes the video by playing Chopin's Fantaisie Impromptu, which she seems to find extremely easy to do. I have been trying to learn that for over a year and I'm not there yet.  Makes ya sick don't it? Umi is studying with Yoshie Akamoto right now. Initially, she would fly coast to coast from her home in California, just for piano lessons, but that was laborious and expensive, so eventually, it was decided that Umi would move with her mother to New Canaan, Connecticut while dad stayed home to continue his work.

To see Umi perform her 'party piece' you can log onto her Ellen Degeneres Show interview (on Umi's You Tube site) where she'll show how she can play the piano backwards. What that means is that she sits with her back to the piano and plays the piano which is now behind her. It means playing the left with the right and the right with the left. She can also lie down on the stool with her head underneath the piano keyboard and still play at the speed of light. Shucks, my mind was just returning to my head, now it's in orbit again.

Earlier this year, Umi won the Chopin International Piano Competition where all three judges awarded her a perfect score. This is the first perfect score in the history of the competition. WOW already!

Umi has a lot of affection for Japan; during the aforementioned concert with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra earlier this year, she tearfully announced to the audience that she wanted "…….to be a great pianist when I'm grown, and to help other pianists as well as to contribute money to help people in need, particularly in Japan."  This was at the time of the disaster that had just befallen Japan. Umi dedicated the performance to the people of Japan. It is her wish that Japan will rise from the ashes of the tragedy and become once again, a superpower. On the 8th of April 2011, Umi gave her first charity concert in Westport Connecticut to help the Red Cross raise funds for Japan. The concert raised $3,400.

There are other child pianists all around the world, and many off them are quite amazing. To name a few: Emily Bear who I think is in Chicago, also very famous across America, then there's the very brilliant Annie Zhou from Toronto, and Nadia Azzi from Florida, and we mustn't forget the brilliant Aimi Kobayashi from Japan. But, I could go on forever. My website has more on them. 

I discovered a ten year old girl from Reading in Berkshire, England this year. Her name is Faye Evans and she played with Lang Lang at the Massed Piano Event in the Royal Festival Hall in May of this year (2011). She played Chopin's Nocturne in C Sharp Minor and I have to say that I have never heard it played so beautifully by any other pianist, adult or otherwise. Her performance motivated me so much, that I focussed my practising onto this piece in an attempt to raise my own standards to come somewhat closer to hers. I'm not there yet, but am improving. Amazingly, Faye looks very much like Umi and also performs in a pink dress, has a long brown ponytail and moreover, she is  ten years old. I believe that I made the one and only video recording of Faye's performance at this event, which is shameful really. One would have thought professional broadcasters would have swooped down onto an occasion such as this. See it at:

Just to finish this presentation, here is a list of Umi's achievements which I have copied from her Bio on the ReverbNation website:

Artist Bio
In May 2009 Umi Garrett, 8 year old pianist, was welcomed and wowed the world on NBC's "The Ellen DeGeneres Show." 
Now at 10 she has already displayed a remarkable talent and thrilled audiences wherever she has appeared.

Umi, Grand Prix Winner of the 2nd Chopin International Competition Hartford, Connecticut 

Umi debuted in China with Wuhan Symphony Orchestra in Wuhan, China, September 2010. 

Umi appeared with Boston Pops. It was broadcasted on the nation wide radio show "From The Top".

Umi has performed with the Desert Symphony in Palm Desert, California. Her performance thrilled the audience with brilliant playing and charm, earning standing ovation and endless applause. 

On May 2010, Umi had her solo debut recital at age 9 at Neurosciences Institute in San Diego, California. 

Umi captivated European audiences in August 2009 as a performer in Vianden Music Festival in Luxembourg and Saarburg, Germany. 
She was recognized as the little star from America and featured live on Luxembourg television as a "wunderkind" which included a personal interview. 

She has had several appearance on "From The Top" national radio show, a concert at Steinway Hall in New York City, reception for Grand Masons of Anahaim, and annual reception for Philharmonic Society of Orange County in California, and a solo guest in the annual meeting of Music Teachers Association of California and Annual Leonard Hodges Keyboard Concert in Washington D.C. 

Umi has won first prizes at the Southwestern Youth Music Festival and the J.S. Bach Competition where she competed with pianists up to age 18. She is a winner in J.S.Bach competition in consecutive two years. 
October, 2009, she was an overall winner of complete works of J.S.Bach. 

In November, 2009, Umi was a winner of the Saddleback Symphony Concerto Competition against age 18. 

Since 7 years old, every year Umi has been participated and performed in Killington Music Festival as the youngest performer in the 26 year history of the Festival.

For the past two years Umi has been invited to participate and perform in concert at the Killington Music Festival in Vermont as the youngest performer in the 26 year history of the festival.

The young pianist also captivated European audiences in August of 2009 as a performer in several concerts at the Vianden Music Festival in Luxembourg and Germany in selected solo and chamber music works.

Finally(although I've said that before),  genuinely thinking that I was being original, I had decided to call this story, Umi Garrett, Princess of the Piano, but as I was surfing the internet doing research, I found that I'd been beaten to it by Frederick R Andresen whose story is here:   Because of that, I'm using the title, Umi Garrett,  Angel Of The Piano. It sounds just as nice, which it would have to do, anything less wouldn't be an appropriate title fitting to this magnificent little person with whom God has blessed this world, for which we thank Him.