Playing hard: Carnegie Hall adds high note to teen’s music career


The Daily Reflector

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

After an impromptu performance and photo shoot, award-winning musician Patrick Kreeger settles down for an interview about his rigorous practice schedule and his recent appearance at Carnegie Hall. Minutes later, he makes a rather startling revelation.

“I’m going to have to leave,” he says, abruptly. The winner of the Bradshaw and Buono International Piano Competition, who will perform with the North Carolina Symphony next year, has to catch the school bus.

Such is the life of a celebrated teenage pianist. His musical career may have already hit what some would consider a high note, but for now, Patrick still has to focus on finishing high school.

“I still have a normal life,” said Patrick, 18, a senior at Arendell Parrott Academy. “I go out with friends, go to movies.”

In between, he teaches music theory, lectures on selecting effective repertoire for piano competitions and writes compositions for piano and orchestra. He also practices two to three hours a day (even longer before competitions) at East Carolina University’s School of Music, where he studies piano with Henry Doskey and organ with Colin Andrews.

“He is quite advanced for his age,” Doskey said. “He is already playing music of a difficulty level that we like to call ‘artist level,’ and he plays those pieces exceptionally well.”

“He is an exceptional student who, in addition to being quite talented, is very focused on what he would like to do in his life,” he said. “It is probably that focus and determination as much as his talent that prompted me to take him as a student.”

His work with Doskey dates to 2004, when Patrick moved with his parents to Greenville from Jacksonville, Fla. Though Patrick was only 14, he had been studying piano for more than a decade.

Wayne and Betsy Kreeger enrolled their son in music lessons when he was 3. In the early years of Suzuki piano instruction, the goal was to prepare their son for socialization, not the symphony.

“We started him in music not because of music,” Mrs. Kreeger said. “He’s a very quiet child. The (preschool) teachers were very concerned. That problem turned out to be a gift from God.”

Wayne Kreeger saw an ad in the newspaper for small-group Suzuki instruction 40 miles from their home. The Kreegers already owned a piano, but, since neither Betsy nor Wayne played, it was more for furniture than function.

“I think my true talent came from my grandmother (Eleanor Burge), who has been the church organist at her church for about 70 years,” Patrick said.

It didn’t take long for Patrick’s teacher to recognize his talent and to begin urging Mrs. Kreeger to find a teacher who was more suited to Patrick’s skill level. Though he was performing alongside children as old as 8, Patrick was already emerging as a standout.

“She told me about a year into it, ‘He needs to be with other teachers,'” Mrs. Kreeger recalled. “I said, ‘This was all about social skills; this was not about music. We want him to be with other kids.'”

Two more years passed before Mrs. Kreeger agreed to consider allowing her then 7-year-old son to study with a university professor.

Gerson Yessin, founding chairman of the music department at the University of North Florida, seldom spent his time with children whose feet dangled from the piano bench.

“His mother called me and told me about him and told me what pieces he was playing,” Yessin, who is retired, said in a telephone interview from his Florida home. “They were advanced pieces, the kinds of pieces I was teaching to college students.”

Yessin assigned Patrick to perform pieces that challenged his young abilities and attention span. Patrick had to go from a single sheet of “homework” from his Suzuki instructor to several pages of music to master each week from professor Yessin.

“He expected a lot. He demanded (that I ) learn this piece by next week. It was a lot of work for a young child,” Patrick said. “I had to buckle down and start doing two to three hours a day of practicing a day.”

Though Patrick was a prodigy, he still needed some polish. Yessin thought his young student had talent as far as technique, but he failed to find the feeling the music should convey.

“I tried to introduce feeling to him, louder and softer, faster and slower,” Yessin recalled. “After about maybe four years … he understood what I was trying to get him to do, and he would come back and play it with all the feeling and emotion and expression. He just blossomed, and he caught fire and became a first-class pianist.”

Although Patrick’s performance abilities were soaring, he began to develop a physical problem that threatened to snuff out his future as a pianist. He began to experience numbness in one arm whenever he sat down to play.

The condition grew worse, extending from his hand to his elbow and lasting for longer and longer periods. Doctors described as a nerve entrapment kept him from being able to play without pain.

“He would take Motrin before he would practice,” Mrs. Kreeger recalled. “Nothing the doctors did gave any relief.”

One day, Mrs. Kreeger heard loud music coming from the piano, though Patrick had been instructed to play softly to rest his arm. Patrick came running to his mother and announced that he had attached a contraption designed to help his father’s back pain to his arm and had played without a problem.

Though he did not continue to use the device, “from that day on, Patrick did not get numb,” Mrs. Kreeger said, adding she believes her son’s healing was nothing short of miraculous.

To protect his arms and fingers, Patrick long ago gave up contact sports.

“It’s not safe that I play football or basketball because if I jam something or break something, I’ll be out of competition for a long time,” he said.

Patrick, who has been participating in piano competitions since age 8, recently won the state and divisional titles in the Music Teachers National Association’s Yamaha Competition, where he was one of seven national finalists. He won the North Carolina Symphony High School Competition, which entitles him to perform with the symphony in April, and he took first at the Bradshaw and Buono International, which led to his performance before a sold-out crowd at Carnegie Hall.

“In the history, you’ve had Tchaikovsky walk the floor there and all the big composers have been there,” Patrick said. “Then you’re sitting up there yourself at such a young age, it is kind of overwhelming.”