Charleston native Micah McLaurin is a 15-year-old piano prodigy with six brothers and sisters and more awards than most pianists twice his age. He will be a featured performer in the 20th anniversary season of the College of Charleston's International Piano Series, and yet, what he wants most is to make you cry.
"I think the most important thing in music is for people to really enjoy it, and for it to communicate with them," says Micah. "So if they cry, it probably means they enjoyed it and really felt the music!" With his intended setlist of works by Bach, Chopin, Prokofiev, Haydn, and Rachmaninoff, this emotive audience response should not be a stretch for the young artist.
Since its founding in 1990, the International Piano Series has featured well over 100 performers from over 30 different countries, and as a home-schooled ninth grader, Micah will be the youngest pianist in the series' history. He began playing at age eight, when his grandmother gave the McLaurin family her old piano. His mother, Karen McLaurin, was not too happy about this new arrival in their already crowded home. "It meant a lot of banging unless someone took lessons," she says.
Early on, the family took time to teach the eldest McLaurin children, but Micah had little interest. According to his mother, "Micah didn't want to be bothered at all at first — he wasn't very good at sitting still. But after a short while, he started looking through the book on his own and playing pieces, and he just got hooked."
Hooked indeed. Since those early beginnings, Micah has dominated piano competitions, performing emotionally charged pieces for audiences on the local and national scale. In 2008, he won second prize in the International Institute of Young Musicians Piano Competition in Lawrence, Kan., and first prize in the Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra Youth Concerto competition, resulting in a concerto performance with the symphony in December 2009. He also placed fourth in the 2009 Blount-Slawson Young Artists Competition in Montgomery, Ala.
All this attention can take a toll on a teenager, but Micah has learned to control his nerves, on and off the stage. "It's just natural to be nervous before an important performance," he says. "I get nervous about memory slips and mistakes, of course. I'm usually a lot more nervous offstage, because once I get onstage, my nerves go away or greatly decrease."
Mother Karen feels the same way. During many of Micah's early performances, she says she would be more nervous than her son. As Micah has matured — as a person and a performer — Karen has learned to separate Micah, her son, and Micah, the performer. "He doesn't even seem like my own child when he's performing. He's an entirely different person," she says.
During performances, audiences have witnessed Micah, the performer, and it is easy to forget this prodigy is only 15. He plays with shocking maturity and truly does have the ability to pull an audience inside each chord. This uncanny grace and development is due in part to his musical influences: his first piano teacher, Marsha Gerber, and his current tutor, Enrique Graf, at the Charleston Academy of Music. Graf is a world-renowned pianist, who started playing when he was four years old and has since played such prestigious venues as the Kennedy Center, the Lincoln Center, and even the Spoleto International Piano Festival in Italy. Graf is also a featured artist in the International Piano Series this year, slated to perform March 16.
With so much time spent behind the piano, when does Micah find the time to just be a teenager? According to this young musical master, it's all about getting up early. Every day, Micah rises with the sun. He finishes school work, and then, he practices piano — four or more hours straight. Along with piano, he has been known to play tennis, swim, jog, and weight train. That being said, Micah admits, "These past couple years, my pieces have become longer and more challenging, and I'm learning more pieces, so I have had to cut back on other activities to give myself more time to perfect them."
This one-track focus has always been a concern of his parents. Karen says, "We have had to encourage him to keep a balance in his life between playing piano, exercise, and social recreation," which is part of what she has learned as a mother of seven. Her advice to parents? "Don't over-schedule — give them lots of outdoor time to play and dream. Teach them to cook and do laundry."
Micah's healthy, family-oriented upbringing has had a lot to do with the emotive quality of his playing. Yes, he does want to leave his audience in tears. He does want to move them with each touch of the keys. Micah hopes that one day, he'll be up there with his instructor Graf, being begged to perform at venues worldwide. Until then, Micah realizes he is still learning. He is still in high school, and he does plan to attend college for additional education.
When asked why he plays, Micah's response is simple: "I play the piano because I love it! That's about all I can say." Audiences approve, tears and all.