Piano man: 12-year-old piano prodigy turns heads
WESTPORT — It was a small crowd.
Just Ethan Walmark’s parents — Michael and Allison — and his younger sister Eliza, age 11, were present in the family’s Westport living room on the Sunday after Thanksgiving.
But you wouldn’t guess that based on the way Walmark worked the crowd and attacked the keys of his keyboard, playing without pause an eclectic and wholly improvised medley of songs that included covers of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Hamilton the musical and the work of more obscure artists — at least given Ethan’s age, 12 — like Duke Ellington and George Gershwin. Unexpectedly, yet seamlessly, he’d change the tempo of his playing and the tone and timbre of his voice as he moved in and out of rock and pop and funk and jazz.
At times, he’d call his Eliza up to the mike for accompaniment on songs like Billy Joel’s “Vienna,” at the end of which he asked, “How’s everybody doing?” During “Great Balls of Fire,” by Jerry Lee Lewis, Ethan paused mid-song to emphatically throw down his piano stool and on “Jungleland,” he did his teenage-best to mimic Bruce Springsteen’s gravelly vocals, to surprising success.
At one point, he led a call-and-response rendition of Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “Midnight Train to Georgia.”
Walmark began : “L.A./ Proved too much for the man.” His mother and Eliza echoed, “Too much for the man.”
Even for one apprised of the young Walmark’s lengthy performing resume, it was a dizzying display of talent and mastery of a seemingly boundless library of music for a performer his age.
“Truly, if we categorized the list of songs he knows, it would be in the thousands,” Allison said, during a break in the music. “He can play songs start to finish, but he can also play hours just weaving in and out like a magician.”
It’s been that way since he was just over a year old.
Allison’s father was an accomplished musician — and an early teacher to the great jazz trumpeter Woody Shaw — and, when Ethan was 15-months-old, bought his grandson a small Melissa and Doug piano.
“We were in the kitchen and Ethan was in the living room,” Michael remember. “We heard “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and we were like, ’What is that?”
From that point, music has always made sense to Ethan. It served as a mode of communication and therapy to his parents and Ethan, who was diagnosed as a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
The Walmarks tried a variety of speech, occupational and music therapies over the years. But none was as effective as letting Ethan play, which he does often through Fairfield’s School of Rock — where he plays with a band of high school and college students and has performed in shows playing a variety of instruments featuring the music of Led Zeppelin, Stevie Wonder, Queen, the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
“We’ve seen a growth in maturity from the music and from the interactions at School of Rock. Because it’s a form of communication, it’s helped him develop other forms of communication,” said Michael. Ethan, meanwhile, was making plans via text with his bandmates to go ice skating at Longshore Ice Rink.
With his peers at School of Rock, Ethan has played regularly at Fairfield Theatre Company. But he’s also played larger venues, thanks in part to viral video of 6-year-old Ethan performing “Piano Man,” and profiles in places like People Magazine, he’s earned some recognition.
He sang the National Anthem at Red Bull Arena, before a New York Red Bulls soccer game, to a crowd of roughly 25,000. He performed to 30,000 at Jones Beach, and on NBC’s “Today Show” and CBS’s “Early Show.” In November, he played four songs at the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., at the first Autism Awareness Gala Fundraiser, put on by the Embassy of the State of Qatar in partnership with the nonprofit Autism Speaks.
But Ethan is not phased by the crowds or the attention. He continues to rehearse and take lessons at School of Rock four times a week and is learning new instruments, most recently the drums.
By now, he plays harmonica, stand-up bass, electric bass, melodica, guitar, ukulele, keytar, keyboards and sings. Because of the ease with which he picks up instruments and learns songs after just one or two listens, Allison wondered whether Ethan may experience synesthesia — a cognitive phenomenon wherein one sensory experience is involuntarily perceived by a second, seemingly unrelated sense, described by some musicians as seeing sounds — though his parents said he hasn’t yet articulated exactly it is he sees when he’s looking at a keyboard.
“In some respects it’s a double edge sword because he thinks everything should be as easy as music. And sometimes it’s not,” Michael said.
“Music is the thing in life I say he doesn’t have to work twice as hard to get half as much,”Allison said. “He’s a born entertainer.”
After a brief gap in playing, Ethan was back at his piano. As he keyed the final notes of Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” Ethan signed off.
“Good night, everybody,” he said, before he left his seat and walked out of the room.