Student pianist overcomes physical challenges to play Carnegie Hall

By Amanda Bullis

When Egyptian-born pianist Wael Farouk was 3 years old, his parents noticed that he was unable to grip everyday objects the way an average child would. His hands were unusually small, and he could not make a fist or straighten his fingers.

Doctors confirmed that the ligaments in Farouk’s fingers were shorter than normal, preventing him from full mobility. To avoid subjecting the young Farouk to painful injections, his doctors suggested to his father that Farouk exercise his hands regularly.

So, on Farouk’s third birthday, his father bought him a toy piano.

Farouk’s father was an officer in the Egyptian military; his mother worked for a telephone company. Neither were inclined toward music, but “[they] saw very quickly that I could recite songs on the radio by ear,” recalls Farouk.Despite his hands, or perhaps because of them, Farouk and the piano developed a bond. And by age 4, Farouk was playing publicly in churches around Cairo.

“Beethoven always said that art was 90 percent work and 10 percent talent. There’s no more proof [than me]—the physical is only part of the question,” says Farouk, 31, a DMA candidate at the Mason Gross School of the Arts. Farouk is set to make his Carnegie Hall on Saturday, June 1, 2013.

Farouk’s hands were, however, the reason 90 percent of the board at the Cairo Conservatory initially denied his application. Only one teacher on the admissions panel advocated for Farouk. The rest of the panel ultimately conceded, giving Farouk a trial period of three months, in which he was to complete two years of course work to prove his competency.

With the aid of his father’s strict military guidance, not only did Farouk complete the work, he excelled. Since then his father has been, in many ways, the inspiration for Farouk’s strict practice regimen.

“My father always told me if I give myself to the music, love it in the full sense of the word, it will give love back,” says Farouk.

He admits that he often feels guilty if he spends his time doing other things. When Farouk was in his 20s, he devoted 16 hours a day for two years to practicing nothing but Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Third Concerto in preparation for public performance.

“Music occupies so much of my being,” he says.

Playing with heart
Farouk has been studying in the United States since he accepted his first Fulbright Scholarship to The Catholic University of America in 2003. Now Farouk is at the Mason Gross School studying with Daniel Epstein. His Carnegie Hall concert in Weill Recital Hall will feature works by Modest Mussorgsky and Sergei Rachmaninoff, as well as a world premiere by Scott Robbins and U.S. premieres by Mauna Ghoneim and Gamal Abdel-Rahim.

Despite the mammoth reputation of the hall and the long legacy of past performers, “I can’t treat it differently than any other concert,” says Farouk.

Playing New York City’s Carnegie Hall is certainly a milestone for any performer, so this concert, despite his protests, is not “any other concert,” and Farouk is not any other pianist.

“Wael is an incredible, natural musical talent,” says Epstein. “There is something about his playing that is very old world, from the golden age of piano playing: free, from the heart, with an awareness of sound you don’t hear from other young players.”

Hard work may account for much when measuring artistic success, but Epstein also sees Farouk as a natural with a passion for communication.

“Humanity comes out in his playing,” says Epstein.

And Farouk himself admits that he sees playing as much more than entertainment.

“Everybody has their one channel [of expression],” says Farouk. “When you play, sing, act, you are playing yourself.”

Posted May 2013