A Lower Merion Teen Is Competing Against the World’s Greatest Young Pianists

Avery Gagliano is a semifinalist in the prestigious Cliburn junior competition, which wraps up this weekend. Here, she talks Led Zeppelin, practicing five hours a day, and why Philly trumps D.C., her hometown.

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Philly pianist Avery Gagliano, a Van Cliburn youth competitor. (Photo by Ralph Lauer)

Seventeen-year-old Bala Cynwyd resident Avery Gagliano is one of six competitors from around the world left in the prestigious Cliburn junior competition, which seeks to find the world’s best young pianists. The live semifinals are happening in Dallas on Thursday afternoon and evening, and the finals are on Saturday. (You can livestream all of them here.) We caught up with this impressive third-year Curtis Institute of Music student to learn more.

My parents forced me to play piano, and I absolutely hated it. I feel like that’s the story with most kids who play piano. How did this work out differently for you? It seems like piano is your life.
It really is. It always has been. I grew up listening to classical music all the time, and when I started piano, it came very naturally to me. I appreciate that I can express myself through something so beautiful and profound and to communicate it to a universal audience.

I did get to a point right before I decided to audition for Curtis whether I wanted to focus on dance, which I was doing very seriously up until that time, or academics, or piano. I did a lot of reflecting. And then I just had an epiphany: I really couldn’t see myself doing anything other than being a pianist.

When did you start at Curtis?
Three years ago. My whole family moved with me from Washington, D.C., where I was born and raised. Now we live in Bala Cynwyd.

I auditioned when I was 14 and started when I was 15. I’m 17 now, and I’ll be going into my freshman year at Curtis for my bachelor’s degree. Curtis doesn’t really have a pre-college program, so the way it works is that if you are underage when you get in, everything music-related that you do is at Curtis, and you do your academics elsewhere. I chose online high school through Indiana University.

I actually finished my high school classes this year, so I’ve already begun taking classes at Curtis that count toward my bachelor’s. And I practice about five hours each day. So I’ve been busy. And I expect to be pretty busy at Curtis for the next four years.

What happens after that?
My goal is to be a concert pianist, so by the time I leave Curtis, I hope to be with a management company and have engagements. If not, I will continue my education and get my master’s at Yale or Juilliard.

You mentioned growing up listening to classical music all the time. Is that all you have been exposed to?
No, my dad loves classic rock, so I grew up listening to that as well. I love the Beatles, the Who, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, and the Beach Boys. I also listen to a lot of pop music as well. Lady Gaga is my favorite these days, and actually, I have been writing my own pop songs since I was in middle school. They are all in my head. I haven’t produced any yet.

What’s the social scene at Curtis like? I feel like most of us imagine it to be super-serious and devoid of any fun. Is that true?
Yes and no. It’s a very focused environment, and we are all very serious about what we do. But it’s like anywhere else of this level. If you go to Harvard or Princeton or Penn, there are plenty of people having fun. At Curtis, there is a range. I’ll just say that.

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Avery Gagliano at this week’s competition. (Photo by Ralph Lauer)

OK, four quick things that I need real answers to: Philly vs. D.C.
Philly has a much stronger city feel that I like. Philly just has a great energy. I’m very happy to be here.

If you make it through to the finals and win, are you going to party hard?
I’m honestly just looking forward to coming home and seeing my family. I’m here all alone. I’m one of only two competitors without any parents here. I really want a meal at home.

Pre-performance routines or superstitions?
No. My one thing is that I don’t like to eat much before I play. It muddles your brain. I’m definitely not a big believer in superstitions. What happens if there’s an event where that superstitious thing you do can’t happen? It will psychologically mess you up.

And finally, what’s your competition like at this event? Are you like, “Damn, these kids are goooood.” Or is it more like, “Yeah, I got this.”
Everybody is really, really incredible, and I’m so fortunate to have made it this far. Regardless of how good somebody is, everybody has good days and bad days, including judges. So you just have to focus on yourself. I think with any competition, you have to have the mindset that anything can happen. Because it can.