Published in the Chicago Tribune, April 6, 2014
By Jodi S. Cohen, Tribune reporter
Photo: Chris Sweda, Chicago Tribune
It's an hour before the recital, and the concert hall is dark and empty.
In a dressing room behind the stage, Wael Farouk puts on his black tuxedo.
He turns toward his wife, so she can fasten the cuffs at the end of his white sleeves. He holds out his hands, revealing his short, thick, curled fingers.
Farouk was born with unusually short ligaments in his hands. He can't make a fist, open a jar or slip buttons through the holes on his shirt. He's been repeatedly told the condition would limit what he could do on the piano.
But Roosevelt University's youngest piano professor, already an accomplished musician, is proving skeptics wrong again this year as he undertakes a rare challenge: playing the complete solo piano works of legendary Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, known for writing complex and demanding music.
On Thursday night, in the university's majestic Ganz Hall, Farouk will perform the capstone concert in his Rachmaninoff series. It will be the last of five recitals — nearly 12 hours of music total, all played from memory.
It's a remarkable accomplishment that would be difficult for any pianist, let alone one whose fingers cannot stretch beyond an octave, the standard eight-note interval on a piano. Rachmaninoff was known for his unusually large hands that could each stretch an octave and a half.
As a piano student in Egypt, Farouk was told his small hands would prevent him from becoming a concert pianist. One teacher cautioned him to stay away from Rachmaninoff pieces in particular because they were so difficult that he could damage his hands.
But Farouk learned long ago that playing the piano is about more than the size of one's hands.
"You don't really play it only with your hands," said Farouk, 32. "The hand is the part that really transmits what is in the heart."
As a toddler, Wael Farouk struggled to use his tiny hands. He couldn't grasp a door handle or pick up a spoon. He repeatedly dropped his sippy cup, spilling milk all over himself.
His parents took him to the local hospital to ask if there was medication or vitamins that would help his hands grow. They wondered whether surgery could fix his fingers. Instead, the doctor suggested giving Farouk something that would naturally encourage him to strengthen his hands.
His parents gave him a rubber ball to squeeze, but he kept dropping it.
Then, for his third birthday, they bought him a blue plastic toy piano.
Farouk put the piano, the size of an iPad, on his lap and began tapping on the tiny keys. Within weeks he was imitating music he heard on the radio and TV. By age 5, Farouk was playing at church services throughout Cairo.
Neither his father, a military officer, nor his mother, who worked for a phone company, had a background in music, but they recognized that their youngest son had a special talent.
The family had modest means, and it would be many years before they could buy a real piano — which, if new, would have cost seven times his father's annual income, Farouk said. An uncle lent his family money for the first down payment for a used piano. When the second payment came due, the seller realized the family's financial difficulties — and had heard of Farouk's talents — and decided to give them the instrument, according to his family.
When Farouk was 7, his parents took him to audition for the Cairo Conservatory, the premier music school in Egypt.
He said he got the highest scores on the entrance exams, but the piano faculty wouldn't admit him because of his hand condition. "They told my parents, 'You don't want to put a strain on him psychologically, where he will want to do something and for physical reasons cannot,'" Farouk said.
"My dad said, 'Give him a chance.'"
The school conceded to a three-month trial period. Farouk ended up staying for 14 years, rising to the top of his class. Within his first year at the school, he was selected to play before then-first lady Suzanne Mubarak, he said.
At 12 he made his concert debut with the Cairo Symphony Orchestra. And at 13 he performed as a soloist at the Cairo Opera House, he said.
It was around that time when he first heard Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3, and "madly fell in love with the piece." "It was like seeing the aurora borealis," he said.
"I was just completely overtaken by this piece, and I had to learn it one day and I had to perform it," Farouk said. "My great teacher at the time said, 'Don't even humor yourself. I cannot even play this piece.'"
Farouk describes the moment as a crossroads in his life: Listen to the warnings from his instructor — or try to prove him wrong.
The piece is considered one of the most technically challenging ever composed, so difficult that it was featured in the movie "Shine," about a pianist who has a mental breakdown while trying to master it.
Farouk began practicing for as long as 15 hours a day. He stretched his fingers by moving them, one by one, up and down the white and black keys.
He stretched the fingers on his right hand while eating a sandwich with his left. His family stopped taking summer trips to the beach, instead staying home so Farouk could practice in the "piano room" in their two-bedroom fourth-floor apartment. They saved money to buy music scores so Farouk didn't have to use the tattered ones from the public library.
His mother, in an interview from Egypt, began to cry as she spoke about her son's accomplishments and the family's sacrifices. "We did what any parent would do," she said in Arabic, her son translating.
It was 1999, and Douglas Weeks, a piano instructor at Converse College in South Carolina, was on a Fulbright Fellowship to teach at the Cairo Conservatory.
He met Farouk, then 18, who told him that he was trying to conquer the Rachmaninoff concerto.
While the music had been on his mind for years, his hands had to grow. It wasn't until he was 16 that Farouk's fingers could stretch an octave.
Weeks looked at Farouk's fingers, which to this day cannot be fully straightened, and questioned whether it would be possible. He looked at his overall size: Farouk is barely 5 feet tall. Rachmaninoff was 6 feet, 6 inches.
"I thought there was no way he will play it, and I will have to be kind and not hurt his feelings," Weeks said.
A few days later, Weeks thought he recognized the concerto coming from down the hall. He walked toward the music and peeked in the door.
"(Farouk) was half-sitting, half-standing. His feet didn't quite reach the pedals," Weeks said. "To me, it was a revelation like I never thought I would have. I didn't think it was possible for someone with his physique to play a virtuosic concerto from the romantic era. I will never forget it."
At age 19, Farouk played Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Cairo Symphony, in what he believes was a first for Egypt.
Two years later he won a Fulbright Fellowship and moved to the U.S. to study piano in Washington, D.C. In 2004 he won a full scholarship to Converse College to study with Weeks, and earned his master's degree in piano performance.
He is now working on his doctorate at Rutgers University in New Jersey on a full-ride scholarship.
But his home is in Chicago, where he lives in the West Loop with his wife, Amy, and where he is on the faculty of the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University.
There he teaches students the techniques of the piano, but he also tries to teach them something more.
On a recent day he worked with Youmin Lee, 24, who is in the second year of a master's program. They sat at dueling pianos in a ninth-floor practice studio overlooking Michigan Avenue.
He listened to Lee play, interrupting periodically to share his advice: Slow down, and let the notes evaporate. Don't be afraid to make big sounds. Find a way to relate the music to your own life. Make it suspenseful. Breathe.
Then he sat at the edge of the piano bench and placed his hands on the keys to demonstrate how to do it. He played part of Robert Schumann's piece titled "Why?"
"The music has to take over you. It can't just be sounds," he explained to his student. "You have to relate to it, and find something in your own personal life."
Farouk speaks quietly and with a slight lisp. He has a genteel way about him, a throwback to a more formal time.
His list of accomplishments is long. His repertoire includes more than 70 concertos and 60 solo programs, and he has performed around the world, including in Russia, Italy, France and Japan.
Last year he made his Carnegie Hall debut, a performance that a writer for the New York Concert Review described as "absolutely masterful."
But his current concert series is a climax in his life, the conclusion of a pledge he made years ago to try to play all 98 of Rachmaninoff's solo piano works publicly.
He said it is a way to honor the composer who motivated him when he was a teenager.
"Whether it's something on the inside or the outside, we all have our challenges," he said. "Nothing is easy. It makes you learn more about yourself."
Henry Fogel, dean of the Chicago College of Performing Arts, said he doesn't think any pianist in Chicago has publicly performed all of Rachmaninoff's solo pieces. It's possibly never been done anywhere, particularly not in a six-month period, he said.
"His playing is not only exceptional because he is small, or his hands are small," said Fogel, former president of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. "What I want to convey is that if he was 6-2 and had big hands, he would still be an extremely impressive pianist."
On a Friday evening in March, Fogel was in the audience as Farouk walked onto the stage for the fourth recital in the concert series.
The audience applauded as Farouk approached the 9-foot Steinway grand piano, spotlighted on the Ganz Hall stage.
Farouk deliberately placed his fingers on the piano, first the right hand, then the left. With all 10 fingers on the keys, he did one last stretch.
Then for about 90 minutes, his fingers raced across the keys, sometimes moving so fast they were a blur. In other moments, he left a note lingering as if teasing the audience.
At the end of his encore, he took a final bow, his hands at his side.
Then he looked out into the audience and grinned.
"Thank you," he said.
The applause continued long after he walked off the stage.
And that wasn't the end.
Farouk will return to the recital hall Thursday evening to finish what started as a dream so many years ago.
See the accompanying video: Wael Farouk, a Piano Virtuoso and image gallery.
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