Sullivan County Democrat
Callicoon, New York
March 10, 2009 Issue
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Jeanne Sager | Democrat

SEAN CARMICHAEL OF Bradley at the 1917 Mason and Hamlin piano in his upstairs sitting room.

Meet virtuoso
Sean Carmichael

By Jeanne Sager
BRADLEY — If Sean Carmichael doesn’t look the part of the virtuoso pianist, maybe it’s time you rethought the piano.
Carmichael celebrated his 22nd birthday yesterday not out with his friends or even enjoying his summer break from college at his parents’ home in Bradley.
The Tri-Valley grad spent the day in front of a piano, soaking up everything he could from some of the world’s best music teachers.
A piano performance student at SUNY Potsdam’s Crane School of Music, Carmichael is the first Sullivan County native to ever earn a slot in the Shandelee Music Festival’s line-up of international artists.
A cast of the world’s best piano students, the international artists portion of the 15-year-old festival has traditionally been dominated by teens and young adults from far-flung places.
Students come from Julliard and Mannes. They come from London and Japan. They send audition tapes of their fingers flying over the keys on some of classical music’s most complex pieces.
This year only eight were chosen to spend this week in Shandelee, living on the “campus” and taking private lessons with the likes of Mykola Suk, head of the piano department at the University of Nevada, and Norman Krieger, a regular performer with orchestras ranging from the Boston Pops to Germany’s Philharmonisches Orchster Augsburg.
Among them is Carmichael, the kid who befuddled students at the Crane School for months after he transferred in from Ithaca College in his second semester away from home.
“They thought I was a jock rocker kid who was just visiting,” he recalled with a laugh. “Then they heard me play!”
A small hoop in each ear, his short dark hair gelled and set in small spikes, Carmichael looks the part of a 22-year-old on his summer vacation from college. But music students are supposed to be hard-working, serious.
Carmichael is certainly not the latter. As for the former… well, he’s working on it.
He takes his music seriously, he says, spending as much as four to seven hours per day in front of his piano.
At least when college is in session. Of late, well, Carmichael’s easy grin turns sheepish. His brown eyes sparkle. It is summer after all.
Carmichael has one more semester to complete his bachelor’s degree in piano performance at Potsdam. From there, he’ll move straight into master’s studies as soon as he’s done, adding a concentration in accompaniment.
It’s a far cry from the Carmichael of 10 years ago, the kid who told his parents, Susan Carmichael and Philipe Farran, that he didn’t want to take piano lessons.
“I told them I didn’t want to because piano was for girls,” he admitted with a laugh. “I kind of didn’t want to do it, but I kind of did.”
Already in the band at Tri-Valley, where he’d been playing the saxophone since the fourth grade, Carmichael had been playing around with a small keyboard at home. He’d continue on that keyboard for less than a year before Farran brought home the 1917 Mason and Hamlin that dominates the family’s upstairs sitting room.
It was the second time Farran bought the piano – the first was in 1982 when Farran was working at the Pines Hotel and asked a manager what he wanted for the piano that was sitting, unplayed, near the nightclub.
Farran paid $600, stripped the piano of nearly 10 coats of paint, and called on the Pines piano tuner, local music teacher and Callicoon Center Band Director Jim Newton for some help.
With a new, improved piano, Farran took a few lessons but never had time to devote to his studies. He sold the piano to a friend in 1984. Fourteen years later, Carmichael was taking lessons and Farran called the friend. The piano, it turned out, wasn’t being used.
So Farran bought it back.
Now a regular student of Livingston Manor piano teacher Nancy Johnston, Carmichael had a professional quality instrument at home on which he could develop his skills.
“I got interested in [piano] quickly even though I thought it was not cool,” Carmichael said with a grin. “I liked to play fast. Any song I learn, as soon as I could play it fast, I thought it was cool!”
Still playing the sax in the school band, Carmichael began accompanying school choruses on the piano and playing the organ at churches in Liberty, Claryville and Beaverkill.
Pondering a career as a music teacher, he learned to play the clarinet, flute, drums and guitar. Playing his axe with a band of other musically-inclined students at Tri-Valley, Carmichael fostered teenage dreams of becoming a rock star.
He jammed out to the likes of Nirvana and Sevenfold.
It’s the music that dominates his car stereo even today.
“The only classical CDs I have in my car are probably of myself performing,” he said.
“It’s definitely a different school of music,” he said of the work he now practices daily. “Classical music is a lot harder to play.
“You can sit and learn a few power chords on the guitar in a few hours, whereas certain [classical] pieces will take you a year to learn,” he continued.
Practice, he’s learned, pays off. He mastered Rachmaninoff’s First Concerto to win the Crane Concerto Competition in spring 2007. He captured Liszt’s Sonata in B Minor to slam dunk his audition for Shandelee.
And he’s writing his own music – songs for the piano with a decidedly rock edge.
Over the moon about the chance to spend time with the teachers at Shandelee this week, Carmichael is no longer the floundering teenager who transferred from Ithaca when he realized he didn’t want to be a music teacher.
He has two paths before him.
“I want to be a rock star…” he says, banging his head for emphasis.
“Well, that or a virtuoso pianist.”
He’s on his way.

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