Teen pianist turns heads at North Carolina airport
CHARLOTTE, North Carolina (AP) — It’s a typical Friday afternoon at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport, and the moving parts are everywhere: airplanes pushing back, wheelchairs zipping by, escalators descending the newly arrived to baggage claim.
Thirteen-year-old Evan Brezicki is in the center of the main terminal hubbub, doing a transportation job all his own: moving people with music.
His fingers glide up and down the keys of the grand piano in the airport’s sunny main concourse. When he starts playing John Legend’s “All of Me,” passengers Ianna McCarthy and Brad Kelle rise from their chairs and start ballroom dancing, flashing back to the infancy of their relationship two years ago when a New York subway musician played that song just for them.
Evan starts Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,’” and Pennsylvania-bound traveler Roger Zanichelli walks up from his spot by the wine bar a few yards away, floored by the sounds coming from such young hands. “I’m shocked at his age,” Zanichelli says.
Evan, who lives with his parents and older brother in Mooresville, is one of the Charlotte region’s most talented young pianists, with eight years of training under his belt. Once a week — usually on Sunday afternoons — he and his mom or dad flash their airport volunteer badges, zip through the employee security line, and head straight for the Yamaha piano.
Today, Evan and his mom, Gayle Brezicki, take off the instrument’s thick blanket cover, use a key to unlock the piano keyboard and set out a tall glass tip jar and stack of business cards.
Then, Evan gets to work.
He starts, fittingly, with Joplin’s “The Entertainer,” and for the next two hours, his melodies will fill the ears of passengers rocking in the airport’s iconic white rocking chairs, bounce off the floor-to-ceiling glass wall of the main concourse and drift through the food court where rushing travelers will grab a quick bite.
Right away, a crowd gathers — retiree couples, parents with toddlers, flight crew members, a few families. Some pull out their phones to record videos, and when the song is done, they clap. Evan smiles and nods shyly.
He is the youngest of the airport’s eight volunteer pianists, but he’s not the youngest to ever play at CLT. (There have been 12-year-olds who have played in the past, airport officials say.)
“He’s always a crowd stopper,” says Charles Tabor, the airport’s exhibit coordinator who oversees the volunteer piano program. “He plays, and everybody stops to watch.”
The Charlotte region is full of talented teens, but it’s hard to capture in words the maturity of Evan’s playing.
This afternoon, he moves effortlessly down his play list, with tunes ranging from Billy Joel’s little-known “Root Beer Rag” to a Beethoven Sonata, to the famed “Bohemian Rhapsody.” (Evan’s rendition of this song went viral when Gayle Brezicki posted it on her YouTube account in February; it’s amassed more than 1.3 million views.)
Most songs he plays from memory.
Watching him, it would be easy to make assumptions, and strangers sometimes do.
Does he have a life outside of the piano? Did his parents push him into playing here?
The answers, Evan and his parents say, are yes and no.
He attends Community School of Davidson, a charter school near the family’s home, and he’s into tennis and video games, like so many 13-year-olds. He estimates he practices about an hour a day, and takes a break from practicing on the days after he plays at the airport.
Evan says he considers his gigs at the airport to be his form of community volunteerism.
“Most of the notes that people give me are like, ’Thank you so much. You’ve taken the stress off of traveling,” he says. “I think that’s mostly what people feel.”
Gayle, a professional photographer and occupational therapy assistant, and Paul, an urgent care physician who plays accordion and electric bass, both saw early that Evan had a natural gift for piano and worked to get him good training and keep him motivated.
They also impressed on him that his gift with the piano doesn’t define him.
“I want him to have a full, happy life,” Gayle Brezicki says.
Evan’s piano teacher, Dave Uibel, founder and director of Masterworks School of the Arts in Davidson, says Evan has two qualities instructors dream of in a student: innate talent, plus motivation.
And then there’s a God-given gift that no instructor can teach: perfect pitch.
“If you sneeze, Evan could tell you what note you’re sneezing on,” Uibel says.
Having perfect pitch gives him the ability to do all kinds of neat musical tricks, Uibel says. He can crisscross his arms and play songs with the opposite hands. Or stand with his back to the piano, stretch out his arms behind him, and play a song.
A couple of years ago, Evan’s parents were looking for places where he could play in public, and Uibel suggested that he apply to play piano at the airport.
Gayle and Paul Brezicki signed him up to audition for the airport’s volunteer pianist program. He passed the first audition, but airport officials wanted him to learn more contemporary music before he could win a spot. Within about a month, he had taught himself more than a dozen songs, from Billy Joel to Adele. He started volunteering at the airport about a year ago.
His airport repertoire is 38 pieces long, and growing.
Earlier this spring, he placed second in the Steinway Junior Piano Competition in Charlotte — a big deal in the youth piano world. Uibel stresses that he didn’t let it get to his head.
“He’s not impressed with himself,” Uibel says. “When he placed second in the Steinway competition, it didn’t change who he was or what he thought about himself. He’s very grounded.”
Evan’s grounded-ness seems like it would be difficult, given much of the attention he’s gotten at the airport.
And simply playing at the airport is a big deal. Today, CLT is the sixth busiest airport in the country, when it comes to takeoffs and landings. Some 46 million people travel through the airport each year.
Travelers write him notes and draw him pictures, and many afternoons fill his tip jar to the top. He and his parents decline to say how much he brings in on an average day, but say his earnings are going into college savings.
Violin soloist Mia Kim, who grew up a child prodigy and earned the concertmaster spot at Tanglewood Music Festival Symphony Orchestra at age 19, came through CLT on a layover last summer, and says she was “shocked and stunned” when she realized it was a kid who was filling the concourse with music.
“I stopped in my tracks and I had a couple of hours, so I stood there and listened,” Kim says in a phone interview from her home in San Francisco.
“I saw his joy, and his eyes sparkling ... and he melted my heart. I’ve seen other pianists who are (young and talented), and they didn’t have that joy and sweetness. He really touched my heart that way.”
Kim approached Evan and his mom to talk to them and take photos, and the three have kept in touch.
Kim, now in her 50s, says she worries about child musicians with the talent level of Evan, because she looks back and sees how much of her own childhood she missed because of her early music career. She was soloing by age 9 and was a professional musician by age 12; there was no time for soccer teams or Girl Scout meetings.
Kim says Gayle Brezicki impressed her with how little she pushed Evan to practice or perform. “When I advise parents like Gayle, I ask, ‘Does he or she have other passions?’ They often say yes, and I say, ‘Well, do that and do your music on the side.’ ”
Other professional musicians have left Evan anonymous notes in his tip jar.
Uibel says a life in professional music could be Evan’s - if that’s what he desires. “If Evan wants to, he can go to a Juilliard. That’s the kind of capability he has,” he says.
Evan says he isn’t thinking that far ahead.
“A lot of people come through and they say ‘Are you going to Juilliard?’ ” Evan says. “I say, ‘I like the gig I have here.’ ”
Evan doesn’t play with flamboyant showmanship, but with a calm, pleasant expression. He says he tunes out the passenger page announcements that blare out over the loudspeaker and he looks up as much as possible while he’s playing, “because it makes it more interesting to see people walking by instead of just staring at the music.”
And when travelers want to know more about this crazy-gifted kid who’s entertaining them, they approach the warm and soft-spoken Gayle who’s usually standing or sitting nearby.
Sometimes, they make requests. Often she says, they talk about how much they regret quitting music as a child.
Uibel, Evan’s teacher, says he loves the thought of a kid with Evan’s sharing his gifts with people literally traversing the globe, brightening travelers’ days and perhaps inspiring them to see possibilities in their own lives.
“We live in a day and age when so many people can’t see past the everyday,” Uibel says. “And when you see a kid out there like Evan, you enjoy what he does, but it also makes you think, ‘Wow, if he can do this, what can I do?’ ”