A 12-year-old cancer survivor who learned piano as a young child while battling his disease unlocked a talent and passion that paved the way for a once-in-a-lifetime performance.
Daniel Colaner of Akron, Ohio, made his Carnegie Hall debut on Sunday performing Chopin’s “Fantaisie Impromptu” and said the experience was “incredible.”
“Really, it was just absolutely incredible. Just the piano was magnificent, much better than my upright at home,” the 12-year-old said. “The acoustics were amazing. Everything just came together, beautifully.”
Daniel, who played a sample of the Chopin piece on “Good Morning America,” was diagnosed as an infant with stage four neuroblastoma, which affects the nervous system.
At one point, he was given just a 25 percent chance to survive, his family said.
To keep his brain developing, doctors encouraged playing music and during his early years of chemotherapy and treatment, piano became a part of his recovery as he fought the cancer to develop normally.
“Chempotherapy is both a blessing and a curse, and in very small children at 6 months old they basically bring you to the point of death and hope that they kill all of the bad cells and leave enough of the good ones for you to recover,” Daniel’s mother, Marie Colaner, said.
His mom added that she and his father, Dan Colaner, are beyond proud of his accomplishments, “Not just proud, but incredibly blessed to see Daniel healthy, happy and able to do something he absolutely loves.”
As if Carnegie Hall was not enough, the young pianist is an accomplished organist as well and played at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.
“It was just absolutely amazing there. Being able to control this huge wall of sound that covers the entire cathedral was just incredible,” Daniel said.
He said he has “no idea” how he could top this experience. “Going to St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Carnegie Hall in one day, that’s a pretty great day for a 12-year-old.”
Akron musician Daniel Colaner, 12, has always been excited and motivated by setting goals. On Sunday, a big one will come to fruition when he makes his Carnegie Hall debut on piano after placing third in his age division in the American Protégé International Piano Competition.
At the 11:30 a.m. Sunday recital in Weill Recital Hall in New York, he’ll play Chopin’s Fantasie-Impromptu, which contains the melody upon which the song I’m Always Chasing Rainbows is based. Daniel won his spot at Carnegie Hall with a video submission of Aaron Copland’s zippy The Cat and the Mouse about a year ago. But his piano skills have developed so much since then, he and Fairlawn piano teacher Tatsuya Nagashima decided to go for an even bigger challenge by performing the virtuosic Chopin piece at Carnegie Hall.
“It’s very complex; it’s very fast. There are a lot of runs,’’ said Daniel, who gave a sampling of the Chopin work last week on the piano at St. Sebastian Catholic Church in West Akron.
He is considering wearing a tuxedo to play the concert grand piano for his big Carnegie Hall debut.
“I’m very excited. It’s really a blessing that I’ve gotten to this point. I just never imagined this happening,’’ the seventh-grader said.
While he’s in New York with parents Dan and Marie, Daniel will also be exploring his other love: organ playing. With the help of one of Daniel’s teachers, David Higgs of Eastman School of Music, Dan has worked things out so young Daniel can try his hand at playing the organ at the famous St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
“Twelve-year-old hits Carnegie and St. Pat’s in the same day — that’s a good day,’’ father Dan said.
His parents said they feel blessed that Daniel, a cancer survivor, has flourished doing what he loves. He was diagnosed at age 6 months with Stage 4 neuroblastoma, which affects the nervous system, and at one point he was given only a 25 percent chance of survival. Daniel was treated at Akron Children’s Hospital, where he went through eight rounds of chemotherapy as well as surgery as an infant.
He has been in remission for nearly 12 years, and does not have any hearing problems or cognitive delays as a result of his early cancer treatments.
Daniel began playing the piano in first grade and started studying the organ in 2015. At that time, his interest in piano was waning a bit, but jumping into the challenge of organ studies ended up reigniting his love for the piano.
His parents, who are singers, introduced him to classical music, including organ concerts, when he was very young. He felt limited by the sounds a piano can produce and was intrigued by the organ’s pedals and the possibilities of controlling sounds using different stops at varying volumes.
At age 9, the curious boy sat down with St. Sebastian organist Lynn Steward to experiment with the stops and pedals. He also played a piano piece, Bach’s Two Part Invention, for Steward on the organ.
“His thirst and drive for understanding the organ started right when he first played,’’ said Steward, who saw a spark in Daniel from the start. “He was so attentive that first time he sat and played for me that I knew he was more than just a young pianist looking for something different to do.’’
At the time, Daniel’s feet didn’t reach the pedals. He started organ lessons with Steward about a year later, and his skills, understanding and repertoire have taken off over the last two years. Steward said her prized student has worked hard to get his pedal work up to the level of his keyboard playing.
“He’s one of a kind, one in a million. Most kids have no interest in the organ because they don’t understand it,’’ said Steward, who works with Daniel in one-hour lessons.
Plenty of practice
Now, Daniel, who is home-schooled, practices his two instruments a total of about four hours a day, seven days a week. He is a gifted student who began reading at age 3. He also loves technology (he built his own organ at home with his father), Boy Scouts and swimming.
He enjoys being self-directed in his daily academic and musical work.
“I don’t know if I would have gotten to where I am right now if I wasn’t home-schooled,’’ said Daniel, who rides his bike to St. Sebastian near his home to practice on the church’s pipe organ in the choir loft and its tracker — or mechanical — organ downstairs.
This young musician is a rarity among kids his age, not only because he studies the organ, but also for studying it at the college level. Steward, who focuses on training Daniel as a church organist, encouraged him to seek outside teaching to simultaneously prepare him as a concert organist.
Last summer, Daniel attended high school organ academies at Oberlin, Indiana University and Eastman School of Music. After his week at Eastman in Rochester, N.Y., professor David Higgs offered to take the youngster on as his private student, which would include monthly lessons, master classes and departmental colloquiums at the college.
Daniel, who participated with undergraduate and graduate students for the first time at Eastman over a weekend in late October, said expectations are very high at this level.
“I was amazed that this world-renowned organist [Higgs] offered to take me up as a student and they saw something in me,’’ Daniel said. “I’ve always wanted to work ahead and this is yet another chance to work ahead in something I really love.”
The mechanical organ is what Daniel needs to practice on for his classical work at Eastman, especially baroque music. It requires more dexterity and finger strength than an electro-pneumatic pipe organ does. The fact that St. Sebastian has both types of organs is a perfect training ground.
“It really makes it a laboratory,’’ mom Marie said.
Support from the church is key: Daniel is the inaugural recipient of the Lynn Frey-Steward Organ Scholarship Fund, established with an anonymous donation at Steward’s 50th anniversary concert at St. Sebastian on Nov. 5. The scholarship, created in honor of Steward’s legacy to cultivate future organists, will help support Daniel’s outside organ studies.
Daniel, who turns 13 on Dec. 4, now serves as a substitute organist for Steward at St. Sebastian, where he covers the whole Mass. He will play for two Christmas Masses and also will play monthly at the Julie Billiart School of St. Sebastian Parish nearby in Akron.
In an effort to give back to the hospital that saved his life, Daniel played a piece by Debussy at Akron Children’s Hospital’s Pianothon in June, a fundraiser to support palliative care. His former oncologist, Dr. Sarah Friebert, got to hear him play for the first time.
“It’s just little miracle after little miracle,” Daniel said.
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or [email protected]. Like her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/kclawsonabj or follow her on Twitter @KerryClawsonABJ.
“His thirst and drive for understanding the organ started right when he first played.’’
— Lynn Steward
St. Sebastian organist