06/06/10 — Tickling the ivories: Pianist tries to make a difference through music

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Tickling the ivories: Pianist tries to make a difference through music

By Becky Barclay
Published in News on June 6, 2010 1:50 AM

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Jeremy Thompson practices the Brahms Trio on the piano at First Presbyterian Church. The 32-year-old director of music minstries began taking piano lessons when he was only 7.

Jeremy Thompson sits down at the piano and his fingers begin racing across the keys, pausing here and there for a special effect. As the notes ring out in harmony, he is taken from the moment to a place far, far away.

When the piece is done, Jeremy says goodbye to it. It's like revisiting an old friend each time he plays the music.

Each piece is its own entity and its own personality. The more Jeremy practices the song, the more he makes friends with it, trying to get to know it a little better and giving a little of himself to it.

The 32-year-old Thompson has been the director of music ministries at First Presbyterian Church for five years.

His musical journey began at age 7 when he began taking piano lessons in his tiny fishing village of Dipper Harbour, New Brunswick, Canada. At that time, Thompson never dreamed he would make a career of it.

He had watched his older brother take lessons and decided that was for him, too.

"At that age you think in a different way, and I just saw it and said, 'Hey, I want to do that,'" Thompson said.

At the age of 9, the child prodigy became the church pianist in his village.

He took lessons throughout his youth and continued during his 10 years of university music studies. There, he played for audiences at least 20 to 30 times a year. "We had to get used to playing in public," he said.

Not only did he play local concerts, but Thompson was invited to play professional concerts in the former Soviet Union on three different occasions.

Marina Mdivani, one of his teachers at McGill University, was from the Republic of Georgia and had played with the Moscow Philharmonic for 25 years.

She asked Thompson to play in Russia and he jumped at the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. During his three trips to Russia, Thompson played in Moscow and its suburbs, Saratov, Tbilisi in the Republic of Georgia and St. Petersburg.

While in St. Petersburg, Thompson got an added bonus when he stayed with a musical family whose father was a violist in the orchestra there and whose son was a violinist and is now assistant concert master of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic.

"The audiences there were incredible," Thompson said. "The concert halls were full. They have a tradition of bringing flowers to the artist so after you played, there'd be about 15 or 20 people you didn't know come and bring you flowers just to show how much they appreciated the music.

"They applauded and applauded. I could tell while I was playing how much they appreciated the music."

Thompson said an artist can feel what his audience feels. "When you're playing well, there's one point where you feel like 'I got them now.' Then you feel you need to do something special."

Before and during each concert, Thompson got butterflies in his stomach, something he says still happens today. "I think if you stop being nervous, it means you don't care anymore."

It's only natural after Thompson, or any artist, works a year perfecting a piece, then gets up on stage and within an hour or so, it's all over.

"You live with pieces for a year and usually, once you finish a concert, you don't play them again for who knows how long. It's like losing a friend once you've finished a concert."

Thompson gets a little down when he thinks of how music appreciation has changed today.

"So few people are going to live concerts," he said. "With the MP3 player, you just download music. Musicians aren't getting the opportunity to perform as much anymore."

That means people aren't seeing the artist and experiencing his or her energy in person.

"Classical music is somewhat boring listened to on a recording," Thompson said. "That's the whole point of the music, being in the room with a live performance. That's what it was designed for. It wasn't designed to be just background music. It's an event that you come and witness."

And the audience gets something a little different each time at a live performance. "Different people playing the same piece do it differently," Thompson said.

Following his graduation from McGill University, the next step for Thompson was to find employment in the field he loves so much.

It wasn't easy.

"McGill was the best university in the country," he said, "but only about 2 percent of my college friends have full-time jobs in the music field. That's just how desperate the situation has gotten for musicians."

But Thompson -- and Goldsboro -- got lucky. First Presbyterian Church needed a music director and Thompson needed a job. The church contacted him after he posted his resume.

He's tried to change the music ministry not by what is being done, but how well it's being done.

"I've been very pleased with the level we've reached," he said.

For example, the church choir recently performed a Schubert Mass concert with a string orchestra. Thompson said it was a professional-level performance.

"It's a great gift to the community," Thompson said. "Where else are they going to hear this music? They could drive to Raleigh, but most people aren't going to take that option."

Bringing good quality music to people has become a cause for Thompson.

"It's not in schools anymore," he said. "And it's not really in society at large anymore.

"It's impressive and exciting to come to a live concert if the music's presented at a high level. And it's that experience I like to bring to people. It's an exciting way to experience something. And music can have a profound effect on people's lives."

It seems to be working here.

Thompson has had people come to the church concerts because they were forced to by a relative or friend, only to go up to him afterward and tell him what an incredible experience it was and how they can hardly wait for


Music not only affects the listener, but also the artist.

All sorts of thoughts go through Thompson's head while he's playing, from processing all the different notes to how he's using the pedal to how the audience is reacting.

"Then, I don't know why, but your brain just drifts sometimes," he said. "Like, 'man, I'm hungry, I should have eaten more before I started this.' There's all these things going through your head at the same time. You need a lot of focus to drift back."

It's not just the thoughts that an artist has to deal with, but also the feelings that the music evokes.

And it's not just one emotion in a piece of music.

"Your feelings change all through the piece," Thompson said.

"For example, in bar four, there's a little change that makes it a little more agitated. Or you start out happy then all of a sudden it gets a little more dramatic then it gets very intense and angry then comes back to being peaceful at the end. The peace is the experience of going through that."

Music is more than just listening to a piece of music.

"It's a way to think about the more profound things in life," Thompson said. "It forces you to think about God, about yourself in relation to God and just about your life. It makes you a better person.

"The more you give to music, the more it will give back to you."