Two years ago, in fifth grade at W.E. Cundiff Elementary School, Zach Baldwin asked his music teacher, Ellen Hannan, if he could play a piano solo in class the next day.
What was unusual about that request was that he had never before performed a song on the piano in public and had not taken the first piano lesson. Hannan says what she expected to hear was Zach picking out a simple tune with one hand. What she heard instead was on a whole different level.
“By the end of six months he was playing Bach, Mozart and other composers,” said Hannah. “He is now in the band at William Byrd Middle School as a percussionist and plays a piano solo at his band concerts. He has a prodigy-type ability and is playing piano far above the ability level of children his age. He is quickly becoming a hometown sensation.” She says she has encountered only a handful of students with his talent in 19 years of teaching.
Hannan says that after his first solo performance, she let him play a solo during each class period.
“His life was changed by sitting down at the piano and starting to play,” said Hannan.
He received a great response and much encouragement from his classmates. Zach performed at their fifth grade graduation ceremony, where he began with a simple version of “America the Beautiful,” and then stunned the audience with the “Turkish March.”
Now a seventh grader at WBMS, Zach won second place in instrumentals in the Vinton Breakfast Lions Club Bland Foundation Music Scholarship competition in February performing “Fur Elise,” by Beethoven. He is scheduled to perform on piano in the Miss Virginia Pageant in June, featured in the local youth talent segment.
His father, Gerry Baldwin, says that Hannan, his WBMS band director Denise Aspell, and his piano teacher Beth Meador have been very influential in the musical aspect of his son’s life. He takes weekly lessons from Meador. Zach says he practiced basically non-stop when he first started lessons and continues to practice one or two hours a day now.
“Zach has a gift for music,” said Meador. “He can play many songs ‘by ear.’ He enjoys classical music, and he works very hard to improve his playing. This is my third year working with Zach as a teacher, but he begins to learn many pieces on his own before we work together on them. With his determination, he should have a bright future as a musician.”
“Many members of my family have a musical gift to some extent,” said Baldwin.
“I have played guitar, piano, and harmonica for 35 years, so I was hoping one of my three sons would develop this talent. At 9 and 10 years old, I would set Zach at the piano at our church, Forest Park Baptist, and he would just peck and play along, but not with any enthusiasm; then one day he came home and said ‘Miss Hannan is letting me do a solo piano song– can you teach me by tomorrow?’
“A week later he said he had learned a Mozart song,” Baldwin adds. “I was skeptical, but gave a listen and was amazed he was playing a piece in one week that I couldn’t play in 30 years. Then his love for classical piano escalated. When I asked why he was into classical, his answer was, ‘It’s the most difficult and if I learn the hardest first, everything else will be easy.’”
“He plays contemporary Christian with me as well as some old Baptist hymns and has crossed over into some pop, like Adele, Styx, even Lynyrd Skynrd, but always finds his way back to classical,” said Baldwin.
Baldwin said that when Zach was younger he struggled academically in school, but “since he found his niche in piano, he has become an A-B student with an occasional C, but vastly improved.”
Zach says that is because studying and playing music has helped him concentrate, and has also given him an additional purpose in his life. Hannan and Aspell say it’s also because studying music has an amazing effect on the brain and learning, even raising test scores, a fact which is borne out by research.
Zach plays percussion (xylophone, snare drum, mallets, and keyboard) in the middle school band. He says piano remains his favorite instrument and classical his favorite genre.
He said he has always been making up songs in his head since he was little. He started playing on his grandmother’s piano.
He only occasionally gets nervous about performing in public, he said, but that it becomes easier each time he performs.
He would like to go to an arts college, gain more recognition, and become a performing artist.
Aspell says Zach will only get better as he and his hands grow and his reach expands on the piano keyboard. His father and teachers say he is extremely coordinated and able to play “hummingbird fast.” They say another strength is his composing and his ability to transition as he plays. Zach says he thinks about “what would sound good next.”
His other interests at this point include basketball and dog agility training with the family’s two border collies and a German Shepherd.
Zach and his father perform each Sunday during several parts of the worship service at Forest Park Baptist.
“God gave him a gift and he’s using it,” said Baldwin. “One last fact, recently Zach has shown interest in guitar and has learned five chords on my electric guitar. Watch out, Eddie Van Halen!”
You can find Zachary Baldwin performances on YouTube.