Chapel Hill teen to give concert before heading to Juilliard

Chapel Hill teen to give concert before heading to New York to study at Juilliard

schandler@newsobserver.comJanuary 6, 2013 


  • HEAR HIM PLAY Michael Bennett will perform in “Michael and Friends – A Benefit Scholarship Concert” to raise money to help with his tuition to Juilliard’s pre-college program. The concert, which is open to the public, is at 7 p.m. Saturday at Christ United Methodist Church, Southern Village, 800 Market St. in Chapel Hill. Donations will be accepted.

Michael Bennett doesn’t really know when he started getting interested in music.

Perhaps because his mom listened to baroque music while he was in the womb, he said, “I just literally had it all in my brain.”

Michael, now 13, started playing violin when he was 3, added piano the following year, and now plays organ and composes music, too.

So maybe it’s no surprise that he’s also getting an early start on his formal music education. After being invited to audition for The Juilliard School’s pre-college program – an honor in itself – Michael was accepted just 24 hours later for organ performance study.

“It was awesome! I was super excited,” he said.

So soon he and his mother, Kelly Harris, will move from their home in Chapel Hill to New York City, where Michael will continue his homeschooling (a necessity, his mother explained, to remain flexible amid multiple music lessons and hours of practice each day) and study at Juilliard on weekends.

“You go every Saturday and you have intensive studies from the time you wake up to the time you go to sleep,” Michael said. “It’s kind of like going to summer camp, except every Saturday. It’s really cool.”

Juilliard, he said, will allow him to go after his dream of becoming a concert pianist (who also plays organ and composes) as he learns from world-class teachers and his similarly world-class peers.

“I just want to grow musically and technically with my fingers,” he said. “I want to expand my repertoire in organ and piano. I want to become a more mature musician and get lots of connections in New York, just know good people who are really nice and good teachers and performers.”

But before he leaves for his Big Apple adventure, Michael is giving a hometown concert Saturday, both as a fundraiser to help with the hefty Juilliard tuition and a way to say goodbye.

“It’s sort of like his last hurrah here before he goes off,“ his mother said. “A big celebration and a nice sendoff from this community that’s been so, so supportive of Michael.”

In addition to Michael, several of his teachers and friends will perform at the concert. Among the songs on the program is “Stained Glass and Birds,” a piece Michael composed at age 11 that won the 2010 Music Teachers National Association’s National Composition Competition.

“One day I just went out and started notating bird calls, and I decided to put them down in the violin part,” he explained. “I thought about beautiful chords for the piano and complex harmonies and polytonality and atonality and things like that in the modern school of composing.”

Fact is, Michael is always thinking about music. When asked about the role music plays in his life, he answers, “it IS my life, pretty much.”

His mother, who recalls a toddler Michael playing “air violin” before ever laying hands on the real thing and pounding out intricate drum patterns on his toys, said music is “just a part of him. He’s always got music in his head, 24/7.”

Michael doesn’t complain about the hours of practice and study that go into being a top-level musician, or all the travel to music lessons in distant cities so he can learn from the very best teachers. He still finds time to be a regular kid, dabbling in photography, going to movies, and hanging out with friends from homeschool groups and his church’s youth group. But it’s music that challenges him and keeps his eyes fixed on a bright future.

“When you get to that level, it’s a creativity thing,” he said. “Your curiosities and exploitations of what is possible within music. To be bold and push the boundaries in piano playing and organ playing and composing. That’s what I want to do: be very influential.”

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