Popularity is relative, and especially in the digital age. You could have hundreds of thousands of followers online, but be completely unknown in the streets — massively famous on Instagram, YouTube or Twitter, but lack any kind of real, authentic cool in person. For our new series, Coolest Person in the Room, New York-based photographer Megan Walschlager pinpoints all the people whose energy is contagious regardless of their following count or celebrity. Meet Micah McLaurin, the New York-based concert pianist you need to know.
Tell me about your day job,
I'm a concert pianist. That means I get engagements all around the world with an orchestra or as a soloist to do a performance.
How did you get to where you are now?
I started piano when I was 8 because my grandma gave us her old piano when she got a new one. I was very interested, so my mom signed me up for lessons. I studied in Charleston until I was 18, and I was doing a lot of competitions and all that stuff. Then I went to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia for 5 years; that's where I got my bachelors degree. Curtis is one of the most prestigious schools in the world. The acceptance rate is only 3% because they offer full scholarship for all the students there. After I graduated, I went to Juliard for my Masters and that's where I'm at now.
Earlier you mentioned you had a lesson later today, and I am kind of surprised to hear that even at this level you are taking lessons!
I have a lesson every week. I think it's helpful because you don't always know what you're doing. You think you know what you're doing, but sometimes it's completely different than what's coming out. I find it helpful to have another ear, and another mentor to help you. If I wasn't in school I wouldn't be having them as frequently because I don't feel like I need it that often, so I would rather come to somebody once in a while when I felt I needed the help.
How often do you have to practice?
I used to practice — like when I was at Curtis — like all day long. From about 10 AM to midnight with breaks. But I don't think that's necessary anymore. I practice a lot of if I have a concert coming up or if I'm preparing for a competition, but if I don't have any of that I like to enjoy life a little more.
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Totally. What else do you do to enjoy life?
Besides piano... I love fashion, I love going to parties and all kinds of events. I think if I wasn't a pianist I would do something in fashion. I love really over the top, bling-bling and all that stuff.
How did you first get into music?
My mother always played classical music in the car growing up, and I was always pretty attentive to it. Actually when she would play something I didn't like, I would throw a temper tantrum because I would insist she play my favorite piece.
Do you ever write your own music?
I do. I don't really write it down anymore, but I improvise. I used to write a lot more when I was younger, but I thought that other people's music was so great that I couldn't compare. I just felt like how can I present this if everything else is so amazing?
How often do you have a performance? Are there busy seasons or is it pretty steady?
It's pretty inconsistent. Sometimes I'm busy and have a lot of concerts in a small period of time, sometimes I have long periods where I don't have anything at all and I'm looking for the next thing to do. Sometimes, for example, I have a big gig and then nothing after that, so it kind of throws you off. You're like, "What do I do with all this time?"
Do you have a piano at your house in New York?
I actually don't. I don't own a piano. It's pretty sad, right? A pianist without a piano.
Well, I was just thinking you would have to have a pretty big apartment to house a piano.
Yeah, you do. But believe it or not, pianos can fit in these apartments. People think they can't but they can. Even a grand piano can fit.
Photo by Megan Walschlager
Have you had a performance that has been a pinch-me experience?
Yes. I played with the Philadelphia Orchestra back in July 2018. It was in an outdoor venue called the Mann Center. There were like 3,000-5,000 people there. The Philadelphia Orchestra is one of the greatest orchestras in the world and I was playing Gershwin with them; I was playing his concerto as the soloist. That was the biggest pinch me moment because it just felt glorious playing with one of the greatest ensembles in the world on this huge stage with a big audience. It was like heaven.
Do you ever get stage fright before a show?
I definitely get nervous. Sometimes I start shaking or you get nauseous or you start having all these negative thoughts like, "What if I have a memory slip? What if I stop? What if my hands are too cold?" You have all these things running through your head and sometimes when you get on the stage all of that goes away and you feel comfortable, inspired and free. But sometimes you get on the stage and it doesn't. And there's nothing you can really do to control it, from my experience. You just kind of have to go with it and if you're having a bad day, you're having a bad day.
You have very good posture, is that from playing the piano?
I do. I try to have good posture because the chiropractor told me that if my neck is too forward from playing the piano then I'll get carpal tunnel.
In your hands?
Yes. If your neck is too far forward, it stresses the nerve that causes carpal tunnel, so I was always super conscious about not getting that. So I always try to keep my back straight and my neck upright.
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Do you have any getting ready routines or pre-concert rituals?
I always like to have a banana. I don't know if it's the placebo effect or not, but people say it calms your nerves down, and for me it actually does. And it's always good to eat something. I also like to be by myself. I don't like to talk to anyone before I play because it throws me off. Actually, I'm kind of a bitch before I play because I go into my own zone and can't think about anyone else.
When does this start, like an hour before or the day of?
It starts a couple of hours before. Like before we get to the venue. It's not on purpose, it's just because I'm so focused.
Do you get to dress yourself for a performance or do you have to wear a uniform?
I absolutely dress myself because I am my own artist and I'm not part of an ensemble. I think in classical music the way people dress is very boring. They're always wearing all black and it's so stoic. It's like a funeral sometimes. But I think the music is so expressive and so emotional — it is over the top — and I think the stage and the performer's clothing can also contribute to that.
I love that. I feel like classical music has this very rigid perception around it.
I'm very passionate about classical music. I'm actually really passionate about all kinds of music, because there's always something that really gets me going. Like if Lady Gaga comes on in the club, I will jump up and down and start screaming. I go crazy for her. But also for classical music, there's composers and pieces that will have an equally large effect; it will make me cry or give me butterflies or the chills. It really touches me and I feel like it's really a part of my voice.
What is next for you?
In January, I'm playing in Milan. I've never played there before. And I'm playing in the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, a really big arts festival in my hometown. It's the first time I've been invited there, so I feel pretty honored to play there.
What do you think are some of the coolest places in New York?
For me, New York is all about the people and everything it has to offer. I think you can find anything here. You can find yourself here and be anything you want to be. I think the atmosphere of New York, you really feel like you can be free and to me that's the best part.
Follow Micah McLaurin on Instagram (@micahmcl).