Gabriel Ball sits before a Yamaha grand piano that nearly fills a small room in his Southeast Boise home and plays the famous funeral march from Frederic Chopin’s Sonata No. 2.
“This is one of my favorites pieces,” he says. “This one really caught my attention because of how dramatic it was.”
For Gabriel, 17, the funeral march is a transformative piece. It marks the time when he was about 12, dutifully taking piano lessons every week, and recognized that it was a piece of music he could play, helping him tap into the world of classical music.
Today he spends hours playing, along with studying the composers whose work he plays. He learned how Ludwig Van Beethoven composed as Napoleon marched across Europe and how a sickly Chopin sought to honor his home country of Poland with his compositions. Without that knowledge, he says, his music would lose some of its depth.
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Gabriel is recognized as a remarkable classical pianist by those who know him and know music.
“He is a very highly talented musician,” says Damon Brown, music teacher at Riverstone International School, where Ball is a junior. “He is exceptional compared to others his age.”
At 6 feet 4 with shoulder-length brown hair, he is an unmistakeable presence at his piano. But it is his hands — long and graceful, with slender fingers — that cement the image of a young man seemingly destined to play. Some people come up to him after hearing him perform and want to compare their hands with his.
Hours with great composers
Gabriel — his friend and parents call him Gabe — started piano at age 6.
“He said he wanted to play the piano,” says his mother, Kris. “So we said great.”
The family was living in California at the time. By the time Gabriel was in fifth grade, the Balls had moved to Meridian. Gabriel’s father, Shane Ball, is a radiologist at Boise Radiology Group.
As Gabriel approached middle school, the couple decided to home-school him, because they couldn’t find a program they thought suited their middle son.
The kids and Kris piled into a mobile home and traveled across the country as part of their education. They packed a keyboard for Gabriel. They would visit historic spots. Shane would fly out to join them when his work allowed. Gabriel would Skype with his music teacher and practice on the keyboard.
“The travel part was good, but the keyboard part wasn’t good,” Gabriel says.
Gabriel constantly needed a challenge, his mother says. “Piano began to be the stimulation for him, and everything that went along with it,” she says. “The composers, the difficulty, the theory of it. He loves theory.”
At home, practices would stretch to four hours a day, sometimes into the evening.
His parents had the piano in their living room but eventually moved it into the master bedroom, where Gabriel spent hours practicing, and moved their bed into a bonus room.
Mastering French, ‘Tutti Frutti’
Gabriel’s friends at Riverstone saw his single-mindedness when he came to their school in 10th grade and began studying French. He had studied Latin and was in a class with students who had been learning French since seventh grade.
Late in the year and over the summer, Gabriel immersed himself in the language. He watched French movies and read French books. He changed the language of Siri , the human voice of iPad and iPhone searches, from English to French. He did the same with languages in video games.
“In a year he learned five years’ worth of French,” says his friend Cat Carignan, 17.
Gabriel developed a taste for the darker side of classical music.
“I personally enjoy extreme emotions in art,” he says. He likes the funeral march’s extreme highs and lows.
But he doesn’t consider himself sad or sullen. He points to composers whose music was often at odds with where they were in their lives. He cites Beethoven, who had lost his hearing and was bedeviled with digestive problems when he wrote one of his most triumphant works, the Ninth Symphony, with its famous “Ode to Joy.”
Gabriel came to disdain more modern work. But at Riverstone — where he enrolled when his parents said home schooling wouldn’t meet his high school needs — that is changing.
In a music class, students began jamming Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti.” To Gabriel it sounded like someone banging on the piano. Friends have encouraged him to “stop trying to play like a classical musician,” he says.
“We’re trying to push him out of his Chopin comfort zone,” Carignan says.
He got into the rhythm of “Tutti Frutti.”
“It’s really fun to play a piece ... with different styles,” he says.
He has joined a student-led barbershop quartet at Riverstone where he sings melody, trading the power of a composer such as Sergei Rachmaninoff for a little “Goodbye, My Coney Island Baby.” And he has joined a youth choir at Cathedral of the Rockies.
Singing has given him a new outlook on music, he says. Piano tends to be about discrete notes, but choir and barbershop quartet are about blending sounds.
A challenging future
College lies ahead. Gabriel is already preparing for auditions in hopes of turning his piano skills into scholarships. He is looking at Oberlin College and Conservatory in Ohio, a prestigious music school; Northwestern University in Illinois; Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.; and Rice University in Houston. He is thinking about piano as a life’s work.
“I can find a way to make this my future, which could be fantastic,” he says.
Brown, his Riverstone music teacher, says a musical career is “a challenge and very competitive.”
His parents guide him: “Live within your means and be flexible” says Shane, his father. “No matter what you do in life, music can be a part of it.”
Gabriel says he’s not sure what difficulties lie ahead.
“If I were to go down that road, if that is what I want, it doesn’t really matter,” he says.