piano
Tuesday, 17 April 2012

PINT-SIZED PIANIST

Curtis Elton is our most talented young pianist… and he’s a rather good ice-skater, too. As he prepares for a UK tour, Katy Pearson meets Britain’s Boy Beethoven, and his very proud Mum

Written by Katy Pearson

Ask eight-year-old Curtis Elton what he wants to be when he grows up and he'll cheerfully tell you, 'a doctor, or an ice-skater, or the prime minister'. His favourite footballer is Wayne Rooney and he loves playing on his brand-new iPad. All fairly basic boy stuff. It's not until you sit Curtis in front of a piano that you really see, or rather hear, what it is that makes this little lad so special. His fingers can't yet span an octave, but he has just become the youngest person in the UK to pass the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music's Grade 8 piano examination.

UNP-Lady-28176-Curtis-Elton018When I visited Curtis at his West London home earlier this month, he couldn't wait to play for me. In fact even when we were talking, he often had one hand tinkling the ivories. Taught by his mother, Hayley – a concert pianist herself – he began his musical education aged just three, after she noticed that as well as enjoying listening to her on  the piano, Curtis also had that rare attribute of being able to concentrate and sit still.

'He always saw me play and even as a baby I soothed him to sleep with my playing,' Hayley explains. 'That's how it all started. He loved hearing the piano. He always used to come down and just want to play and touch the piano. I let him do it, and it grew from there.

'His concentration was so good. At a very young age he could sit still and that's why I taught him Grade 1.' And in fairly short order Curtis became the youngest person to pass his first exam at the age of four. He was so small that Hayley asked to be allowed into the exam room to help him on to his seat (the request was turned down).

'I absolutely wasn't allowed to be in there,' Hayley laughed, 'because it was examination conditions. So I said "please help him on the stool then, because he can't get up – he's little and he's only four". So they did.'

From then on, there's been no stopping Curtis. He's notched up exam passes faster than most boys do grazed knees. Indeed, Hayley has to impose strict limits on how long he can spend on the piano each day (no more than an hour) as left to his own devices he would play until his fingers were sore and his back aching.

'I never let him go for too long because he can't stay sitting in one position – he'll get achy. Because of his concentration he can continue for a very long time, but I have to say "No, that's it, you've done your bit and we'll come back to it either later or the next day". He would just carry on otherwise.'

The first song Curtis can remember playing is Ode To Joy. He was keen to teach me Beethoven's final movement from the Ninth Symphony, but in the end we had to settle for Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. (I confess it is slightly disconcerting being patiently shown how to play a nursery rhyme by a boy who doesn't even reach up to my waist.)

Last year Curtis auditioned for Britain's Got Talent, receiving a standing ovation from the judges for his performance in the show heats. But he failed to get into the next round of auditions. 'I wanted to play in front of the Queen,' he sighs.

But it hasn't knocked his confidence too much: 'I think I'll be better than my mummy soon – if I pass my diploma and do other things,' he says, cheekily.

101121 London Eye Ice JB 12When he's not playing the piano Curtis ice skates. He and his sister, seven-year-old Sophia, are actually the UK's youngest iceskating couple. 'In fact,' says Hayley, 'he's probably putting more hours into ice skating than he is sitting at the piano at the moment.'

Curtis and his mum are set for a UK tour of nurseries and schools, with the Yamaha music company. Running from January to June this year, the pair will do a concert a month aimed at encouraging young children to engage with music. They did a similar tour of nurseries last year.

'He loved being on TV,' Hayley explains. 'Curtis loves performing and going round schools. There is an audience of about 200 at each concert and they all go mad for him. And he messes around on the piano. He's a jokey person; he's got a very good sense of humour. Because it's Yamaha keyboards, not the actual piano, he switches my volume off just as I'm about to play.

'He did that three times last year. And the final piece, which he does non-stop, just goes on and on and on – all the children laugh.' The school performances are in the holidays so it doesn't clash with Curtis's own studies. It benefits him enormously. So, this tour aside, what does the future hold for Curtis? Does Hayley want him to follow in her footsteps and become a pianist? 'I'm letting this take its course,' she says, like every cautious mother.

'He's going to do his diploma soon and then we'll see. I'll take him as far as he wants to go...'

As for Curtis – to be honest, all he wants to do is play for the Queen.

To find out more about Curtis and Hayley's tour, visit www.hayleyelton.com

Hayley Elton's Sleep Baby Sleep albums are available at www.amazon.co.uk and go on sale in February at branches of Asda.

OTHER YOUNG MUSIC AL PRODIGIES

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed from the age of five and performed before European royalty.

Emily Bear composed and released her first piano album at the age of five.

Victor Borge won a full scholarship to the Royal Danish Music Conservatory at nine.

Richard Farrell made his first radio broadcast at four; at seven he played his own composition (a lament on the death of an archbishop) in a public concert with the Wellington Symphony Orchestra.

Carl Filtsch, a student of Chopin, composed concerto at 13. He died aged 14.

Lang Lang began playing at three and entered Beijing Conservatory at nine.




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