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The piano man

Sam Barlow senior Nick Poelwijk dreams of becoming a international concert pianist


He sits down at the choir room piano, takes a deep breath, and seamlessly plays through a Chopin scherzo, the blues, a waltz and Tchaikovsky.

A Sam Barlow High School senior, Nick Poelwijk dedicates four hours a day to practicing in the summer and more than two hours a day during the school year, with his eye on becoming a concert pianist.

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Barlow High School senior Nick Poelwijk performs a Chopin scherzo in the choir room. A recent winner in the Chopin Northwest Competition, he plans to study music at the University of Oregon.

“There’s a correlation between music and academics,” Poelwijk said. “My mom wanted my brother Zack and me to have that connection, so she put us in piano. It was a struggle at first, but as I got older, I learned to love it.”

Beginning piano lessons at age 3, Poelwijk has played for 15 years. Along with playing percussion in the symphonic band and piano in the jazz band at Sam Barlow, Poelwijk studies under internationally-renowned concert pianist Mark Westcott, learning hundreds of pages of music a year.

“In under two years, his improvement has been the most amazing of any teenage student I’ve ever worked with,” Westcott said. “He has a tremendous vitality and expressiveness. His level of precision, grace and execution are damn-near professional level.

“Kids are often so guarded about their feelings,” Westcott said. “He’s perfectly sophisticated, much more than I was at his age. His honestly and sensitivity is really compelling — almost mesmerizing.”

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - During the summer months, Poelwijk practices for four hours every day.

Poelwijk was among three winners in his age division in the Chopin Northwest Competition in early February. After he played, he was approached by the founder of the competition, who offered him opportunities to play in Paris and Sydney, Australia, after a few more years of development and college.

“Who knows what will happen, but it was reassuring,” Poelwijk said. “Just the fact that someone with that knowledge of music noticed and appreciated (his playing).”

Poelwijk has received just shy of a full-ride scholarship to the University of Oregon School of Music and plans to eventually transfer to a music conservatory and pursue graduate school.

Outside of school and his personal piano studies, Poelwijk plays piano Saturday nights and Sundays for St. Michael Catholic Church in Sandy and St. John Catholic Church in Welches.

He also plays for funeral homes and weddings, and he and his friends put together Christmas shows at Zoo Lights.

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Nick Poelwijk is not only an accomplished pianist, he is a percussionist in the school orchestra, leads pep bands and has a full social life with friends that include athletes.

“My heart starts to race a bit the night before I play, but I’m constantly playing in front of people, and that definitely helps with the butterflies,” Poelwijk said.

His band teacher, Paul Nickolas, said he often scares kids away from being performance majors if he doesn’t see their enjoyment of practice. But Poelwijk is one of those students who does enjoy practicing and the process of getting where he wants to go.

“A lot of those really serious kids who spend a lot of time in the practice room, who spend a lot of time performing, will have a disconnect in other ways,” Nickolas said. “They won’t have social circles or other interests. They’ll have tunnel vision. Nick is not that way. He has huge social circles, he comes to our athletic events, he leads the drumline and everybody knows and loves him. He bleeds blue and gold.

“His leadership skills combined with his extraordinarily disciplined process and musicality make him so much fun to teach.”

For a recent winter recognition assembly focused mostly on sports, the school reserved a 5-minute slot for Poelwijk to play. You could hear a pindrop, and Poelwijk received a standing ovation.

“I want to be able to get people my age to appreciate music of substance,” Poelwijk said. “That moment on stage, whether it’s a competition or recital, when you’re on the spot making good music... it’s a special moment.”

Poelwijk has been significantly influenced by Westcott, a pianist who, at the top of his game, suffered a debilitating right arm injury and then had a 10-year bout with cancer, forcing him to leave the international touring circuit.

“To see how how dedicated he is and how much he loves what he does means a lot to me,” Poelwijk said. “He’s really changed my playing and I want to live up to his standards.”

At home, Poelwijk practices on a grand piano in his living room and an 80-year-old upright piano in his bedroom. He and his mother, Vivianne Couch Giusto, a vocalist, perform together for special events.

“Music molds lives,” Giusto said. “My two sons are the proof of that. I wanted them to have the gift of music forever. My grandmother gave my mother the gift, she gave me the gift and now they have the gift.”

After finishing Tchaikovsky, Poelwijk gracefully lifts his fingers from the piano keys and smiles.

"I know I’m putting my whole future on the line with trying to make a living and be a success with just my fingers, but I'm doing what I love to do."

To watch a clip of Poelwijk performing at the Chopin Competition, visit chopinnw.org/2013.html.




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