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Playing the keys off the piano

WEST HARTFORD, Connecticut, U.S.A. – Fourteen-year-old Alma Macbride probably never imagined that she would someday perform with famous trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis at Lincoln Center.

Alma Macbride (Photo provided)

But Macbride did play with Marsalis in New York City earlier this month after winning a nationwide piano competition.

She and 13-year-old Yasiel Sanchez of New York City, were selected as the top two young female jazz pianists in a contest celebrating the late jazz musician and composer Mary Lou Williams.

As the winners, both of the girls performed twice at Lincoln Center with Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

Macbride, a freshman at Hall High School in West Hartford, is a normal teenage girl.

In her free time, she likes to play tennis, watch movies and see shows on Broadway, where she recently saw “In the Heights.”

Macbride also likes to listen to The Beatles and Jimmy Hendrix.

She could possibly have a job in music someday.

“I’m considering it,” she said. “I’m only a freshman, so I’ve got time. My dream job is being a film critic.”

She doesn’t want to be known as “piano girl,” though. She wants to be like everybody else.

But she’s into music a lot. She plays the piano, flute, saxophone and clarinet. She started playing piano at age four and jazz piano at age eight.

The Lincoln Center contest, which was open to girls 14 and under living in the continental United States, was a celebration of the 100th anniversary of William’s birthday.

To audition, Macbride had to send in a video tape of her playing Williams’ piece, “Close to Five.”

“It’s fun to play,” she said, describing it as a medium-fast song. She said it’s pretty hard because it has stride piano, which means she has to stretch her hands to reach huge intervals on the keyboard.
She never heard of Williams until this contest, Macbride said, but now she likes her music. One of her favorite of Williams’ songs is, “The Land of Oo-Bla-Dee.”

Macbride said that in the past, she didn’t really even like jazz very much, maybe because everyone else in her family did.

But, she said, “I gained respect for it.”

Now, she likes jazz, she said. “Recently, I learned new stuff and it sounds cool.”

Her piano teacher, Earl MacDonald, the director of jazz studies at the University of Connecticut, was the one who first told her about the Lincoln Center contest.

Jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and pianist Alma Macbride at the Lincoln Center in New York City. (Photo provided)

On his blog, Ever Up and Onward, MacDonald wrote that Macbride is good at “comping,” or accompanying, sight reading and more.

“Alma is an interesting character. I am convinced that she could do pretty much anything she wants in life, with the exception of playing professional basketball. (I think she’s still well under 5 feet tall.),” MacDonald wrote on his blog. “For me, it’s refreshing to work with a student who has talent, but is also a normal kid, with many different interests.”

A day before the performance, Macbride rehearsed with Marsalis and the orchestra.

Before that, she prepared a lot at home, using her metronome and sometimes playing with the recording. Still, she was a little nervous about playing with Marsalis.

“He’s very good,” said Macbride about a week before the performance. “It’s a little nerve-wracking.”

Her whole family and some friends went to the show and she picked out two nice dresses, one for each concert.

At her November 7 performance, Marsalis told the audience that Macbride was “here to play the keys off the piano.”

Macbride “plays from the heart,” Marsalis said, and “embodies” Williams’ spirit.

When MacDonald first suggested she enter the contest, Macbride said she wasn’t that interested. But her teacher gave her “a guilt trip,” she said, so she agreed to give it a try.

Now, she’s happy she did.

Yelena Samofalova is a Junior Reporter for Youth Journalism International.

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