His Journey Began On A Musical Note


Sam Gaines folds his lanky frame onto the piano bench, scrunching back the den’s rug in the process. His Nike sneakers inch instinctively toward the pedals and his fingers alight on the keys, quiet for a split second before digging into some serious music.

The concentration and confidence belie his 16 years and validate the piano passion that first took hold at age four. Those same qualities landed him on a Carnegie Hall stage in December.

The intervening years were filled with - what else? - practice. Daily. Fueled by a love for playing and for classical music.

After advancing through two rounds in the Brooklyn Music Teachers Guild’s Intercontinental Piano Competition, Sam joined fellow top three finishers in his 16-18 age bracket at the December 8 solo recital at Carnegie Hall.

“Just everything felt like royalty,” he says.

Sam, son of Kathleen and Brad Gaines of Madison, started with the Yamaha music program in group lessons at age four, but the musical signs surfaced even before then.

“It was a lot of fun. I was just really interested in music as a child. All my toys were music-related,” he says. There was a spinning alphabet toy that sang, trumpet and saxophone toys, an alligator xylophone where he’d tap out “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” All pointed in the same direction.

“Every toy he had, if it didn’t play some kind of music, he didn’t really want it,” his mom Kathleen says, “so we knew something’s going on.” He loved listening to Baby Mozart, and rarely watched TV unless, like “The Wiggles” and “Baby Einstein,” the shows had a musical element.

An 11th-grader at Madison Central High, he’s involved with the Reveille Show Choir and the Madrigal Singers and plays keyboard for the school musical.

Piano teacher Donna Reed, who teaches at Mississippi Music in Flowood, spotted Sam’s emerging talent. He moved into her Yamaha class around age eight. Private lessons further enriched his skills; he developed a real love for classical music. “Sam has perfect pitch now. I’m sure he came into this world with some of those abilities already innate,” she says, going on to praise him as a great listener with superb focus.

“He kind of oozes music when he sits down to play. It just naturally comes out of him. He is just a phenomenal student, he really is.”

For the competition, which featured the music of living as well as long-gone (“immortal,” as organizers term them) composers, Sam submitted video auditions in June, then again in September. He performed the required works at his church, St. Matthew’s United Methodist in Madison, for the videos.

Reed was the first to catch news of Sam’s second place finish, on a Brooklyn Music Teachers Guild (BMTG) Facebook post, early one morning. She had to scroll through the entire list twice before spotting his full name. “I immediately texted Kathleen … ‘Pack your bags. New York City, here we come!’ it was an exciting morning for us all.”

At the Gaines household, Kathleen slyly shared the news with Sam. “When he got out of the shower, I was playing ‘New York, New York,’ ” she says, grinning, “and he’s like, ‘Seriously?’ I went, ‘Seriously. We’re going to New York.’ ”

In the BMTG competition, Sam’s second place finish in his division, ages 16-18, came with an invitation to New York to perform. Another of Reed’s students, Anabel Morgan, an eighth-grader at Jackson Academic and Performing Arts Complex (APAC), had entered, too; she’d made it through the first round and not the second, but “she’s ready to try again,” Reed says. “It was a great experience for her as well as Sam. … It really opened their eyes to all of the fine composers that we have in the world right now.”

The New York weekend trip included Sam, his piano teacher, his mom and her mother, Billie Mapp, his dad and both his parents, Lucy and Bobby Gaines. “It was beautiful. It was just surreal,” Kathleen says.

Reed says, “Sam was just as calm. He was cool and collected the entire time. He was performing onstage and there were students from around the world who were there,” she says, recalling half a dozen countries just off the top of her head.

Sam played “Temptations” by Alexander Peskanov, a concert pianist and composer who’s also BMTG president. The young pianist got to meet him, too.

“It was pretty cool. Dress rehearsal, I was playing … and as soon as I finished, I got up and he was standing behind me and he said, ‘Good job.’ It kind of scared me a little bit. I didn’t know he was right behind me,” says Sam, who recognized the composer from BMTG’s Facebook page.

“He said it was interesting. He said my version was much different than the way he did it, and he thought it was cool that I could put my own take on it.” Sam also received a composer’s award for his performance, Reed says.

The concert was held in the intimate setting of Weill Recital Hall, in Carnegie Hall. Sam says, “Honestly, it’s not that much bigger, size-wise” than his previous venues. But the prestige came though in the bright and elegant ambiance, the chandeliers and more in that legendary space. “It was all fancy.”

The experience shines just as bright in memory, along with a couple of key takeaways for Sam.

“The music of living composers doesn’t get recognized that much … but there’s a lot of good stuff. When most people think of classical music, they think of the 1700s, 1800s, but there’s still good stuff being made today.

“The other thing is, just seeing how much talent is in the world.”

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Madison-Ridgeland Academy students who maintained the highest academic average among all sports and activities for the 2018-2019 school year were (from left) Alexandra Cullom, Nicolas Rowan, Bryce