Photos By Craig T. Kojima and Dennis Oda, Star-Bulletin
Sean Kennard packs his day at the piano and at the pool.

Piano Boy

A 12-year-old puts heart and soul
into playing the piano

Story by Burl Burlingame

MOST kids his age, when they talk about hitting the boards, are thinking about surfboards. But 12-year-old Sean Kennard is a master of the keyboard.

So much so that KHPR, Hawaii Public Radio, is celebrating its 15th anniversary with a benefit performance by Kennard, who's three years younger than the station.

We aren't talking "Chopsticks." Not even "Heart and Soul." Kennard has played Carnegie Hall with the Hawaii Music Awards, soloed with the Honolulu Symphony, recital-ed at Vassar and won international Chopin competitions over players nearly twice his age - and that means early 20s.

Not bad for someone who's been playing only two years.

A couple of summers ago, Kennard's grandmother bought him a digital keyboard. Looked like fun, so he self-tutored himself through beginning piano books, learned sight-reading from his father and taught himself 'Number 1 Two-Part Invention,' by Bach. By then, he needed a teacher.

"After I promised to practice, my dad called around and 'Ellen Masaki' was the name that was always recommended," said Kennard. He auditioned the "Invention" for Masaki, who operates out of Thayer Piano.

"I knew right away he was a gifted boy," said Masaki. "He played well, and with maturity. In my 42 years of teaching, I've never seen anyone quite like him."

She didn't take him right away and farmed Kennard out to Rosie Wong, another teacher, until they had exhausted the potential of the digital piano. Masaki insists on acoustic pianos.

"I have to credit the parents, Ken and Keiko Kennard," said Masaki. "Once they decided this was right for Sean, they went all the way, bought a Steinway B piano - about $52,000 - and dug up the living room and put in hardwood floors so there would be the right acoustics."

The piano arrived on Christmas Eve, 1994, and life at the Kennard house has been in a holding pattern around it ever since.

Kennard had to promise to practice, but his parents weren't prepared for how focused he'd be. Kennard practices four hours a day, so much so that his father, an airline pilot, urged him to cut it back to three hours a day and play more sports, try outside activities.

"I promised my father I could do all that and STILL practice four hours a day," said Kennard. He plays soccer and swims for a Pearl City swim club as well.

"I hate the backstroke!" he says fervently. "The fly and freestyle are my favorites."

Swimming has paid other dividends. "His shoulders are broader, and he has more strength, which helps his playing," said Masaki.

Kennard also practices speechifyin' with Toastmasters, plays with his grandparent's dogs, learns a little Japanese from his mother, and occasionally tries a computer game.

Kennard's mother tutors the children at home - younger siblings Ian and Erin are reading and performing math problems far beyond their years - and Kennard listens only to classical music and opera and reads only Sherlock Holmes novels. He also loves the "Narnia Chronicles" by C.S. Lewis.

TV? Naturally, he prefers the Jeremy Brett edition of Sherlock Holmes on A&E. He has no interest at the moment in anything else.

Does he miss the socialization of school?

"There are a lot of bad things kids learn at school; we want him to learn the good," said Keiko Kennard.

Home instruction requires a waiver from the local school; at the end of the year Kennard is tested by SATs to determine how he's doing. He has no trouble keeping up and surpassing other kids his age with only three hours of classwork a day. "I like science, but I'm going to major in music," said Kennard.

Which is good, because the piano calls.

"He's so determined to learn," said Masaki. "He eats it up like a sponge. On our fourth lesson, I was flat on my back with the flu, and he had me conduct the class over the telephone.

"He even asked me how long it would take to walk to the studio if his parents' car broke down. I said, six hours, and he said, OK, whatever it takes. I'm not going to miss my lessons."

On the piano

What: Sean Kennard in benefit performances for Hawaii Public Radio
When: 7 p.m. tomorrow and Friday
Where: Atherton Performing Arts Studio, 738 Kaheka St.
Cost: $25; $20 for KHPR members
Information: 955-8821

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