Music — September 19, 2020
Ebony and Ivory Keys: In Conversation with Piano Prodigy Mackenzie Melemed
Mackenzie Melemed is an Internationally renowned classical pianist. At only 25 years old, find out how his story unfolded and how a humble New Englander became famous in Finland.
Written & Photographed
by Alyssa Mattei
“What is something nobody knows about you?” two adolescent girls ask a young middle schooler as their chosen question for their 8th grade Video Yearbook feature.“What is something everybody knows about me?...” The boy responds as the camera shifts and jiggles as the girls try to correct him in a fit of laughter, they don’t get a chance before he finishes answering the question, “...That I play piano.”
Mackenzie Melemed, and everyone who’s ever known him, has always known he would end up being a concert pianist, and it’s not surprising when you look at his history. He started playing a $1, 2 octave piano at 3 years old, before most people even know their ABC’s. After a year of “tinkering” Melemed was enrolled in lessons. Being a behind closed doors performer was never an option for the young concertist, as by the age of 8 he had already performed hundreds of shows around nursing homes, and graced the stage of Rosie O’Donnell. By the time I met Melemed as a middle schooler he had already performed at the White House for the holidays for several consecutive years, and everyone knew that Mackenzie played piano.
So how many hours a day of practice does it take for one to become a young prodigy? Probably not as many as you would expect, and the amount of time has actually decreased, instead of increased over the years. When he was younger he would dedicate about an hour and a half a day, and by highschool he was committing three to four hours of practice. But now Melemed has “learned how to practice efficiently. Little spurts of 20-30 minutes goes a long way compared to 6 hours slaving away on the bench trying desperately to memorize or get the fingers to do 100% what I want.”
“Being a behind closed doors performer was never an option for the young concertist, as by the age of 8 he had already performed hundreds of shows around nursing homes, and graced the stage of Rosie O’Donnell.”
Though for most it is a big leap to go from practicing at home to being on stage, Melemed unsurprisingly admits that “Performing came quite easily to me, and I enjoyed being out in front of the crowd.” This ease and enjoyment from being center stage led him to pursue a career in becoming a classical pianist. Since he had started performing at such a young age it was a natural transition into growing a full-time career, and for Melemed music was never just a hobby. Though he briefly considered double majoring during his undergraduate career, after placing in multiple international competitions in High School, he ultimately decided to pursue music full time at Julliard, where he received his Bachelor’s, Master’s and Artist’s Diploma (the highest level of study in performance).
With a sizeable resume Melemed has had many important debuts and memorable experiences, but it wasn’t too difficult for him to pick out his top three concert moments:
“1. My solo recital at Carnegie Hall, awarded to me by Juilliard (Dec 2019).
2. In the finals of the 1st China International Music Competition (May 2019), performing Rachmaninoff with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Yannick Nezet-Seguin.
3. Performing Bach in Leipzig, Germany (where Bach worked most of his life, I could really feel his spirit).”
While Melemed mostly sticks to performing Classical music, it doesn’t feel limiting since it “includes music over 3 centuries (from Scarlatti and Bach to Debussy, Liszt, Rachmaninoff, and modern-day living composers like Avner Dorman, Philip Glass).” But the pianist isn’t limited to one genre, between joining the High School musicals and putting on concerts at nursing homes he “grew up playing music that was more familiar to my audience, so I also perform a great deal of Broadway showtunes, music from movies, and some other popular songs for listeners of all ages!
With theatre closed, gatherings and concerts cancelled, Melemed, like many other performing artists has been trying to find ways to accommodate the new socially distanced lifestyle.“Since COVID began, I had to look for ways to spread my music and my knowledge with audiences virtually. I started a Patreon where I livestream mini-lectures and monthly recitals, and I also started teaching online (currently I work with talented students as far as Malta and Singapore),” Melemed explained of his transition to a more technology-based lifestyle. But the widespread pandemic hasn’t stopped the pianist from moving forward and making plans for the future.
Just a couple months ago he officially received a residency visa to live half time in Finland while he continues to plan future concerto world tours. How does a Massachusetts-raised American end up becoming a Finnish phenomenon? It all started with a layover. Melemed describes how it all began:
“on my first trip to Europe back in 2012. I fell in love with the strange language, full of double consonants and vowels. After studying the language for 3 years at Columbia University during my undergrad years, I came to visit a penpal I had connected with online years earlier. Her family arranged a concert for me in a local church event building, and a man recommended that I apply to the upcoming international piano competition (2017). I ended up winning the competition, and the media found out that I spoke Finnish. Immediately, I was engaged for recitals and performances with many of Finland’s best orchestras (they are all incredible), and I was encouraged to come to Finland to live one day.”
And now he does. Looking back at Melemed’s life so far it is fascinating to trace how each small step -a yard sale toy, and an airport layover- has both charted and changed the course and paths of the pianist’s journey. It just goes to show that even if we know what we will be our whole lives, we never know just where that might take us.