In the key of life

Publication Date: Wednesday Nov 5, 1997

In the key of life

In 13 years, the life of Taylor Eigsti of Menlo Park has already had an adult's share of triumphs and tragedies. But all agree his future is in good hands.

by Jim Harrington

Taylor Eigsti answers the door of his Menlo Park home looking very much like the 13-year-old he is, clad in blue jeans, a white T-shirt and a pair of thong sandals.

He smiles, revealing the braces he has worn for two years, as he shows his room and the many brightly colored photographs of athletes that adorn the walls. His bedspread is dotted with National Football League helmets.

Moving to a room in the back of the house, Eigsti points excitedly at the television, which is hooked up with a Nintendo 64 video game station.

"That's where I spend a lot of time, right there," Eigsti said.

These are the rooms where this Woodside Priory School student sleeps and plays. He then moves into a room and a world where he performs.

He slips off his thongs, sits down at his black Steinway Boston piano and announces that he is going to play jazz pianist Dave Brubeck's "Blue Rondo a la Turk." His small hands begin to dance about the ebony and ivory.

Within moments, his forceful finger work transforms the quaint living room into a swinging jazz club. And the music moves the listener's thoughts of Eigsti toward over-used terms like genius, virtuoso, master and, his most frequent label, child prodigy.

"Taylor is in a class by himself. He is a true prodigy," said English teacher Sue Barry, who runs a Woodside Priory music club to which Taylor belongs. "If you closed your eyes and listened to him play, the image that would come into your mind would be a 35-year-old, mature, professional musician.

"It stretches the limits of your perception."

Webster's New World Dictionary defines prodigy as "a person, thing or act so extraordinary as to inspire wonder, specif., a child of highly unusual talent or genius." Whether that is the best word to capture Eigsti is open to some debate, but his lengthy resume certainly backs up the claim. He began playing piano at age 4 and started performing in public a few years after. His performance highlights include opening for jazz pianist David Benoit at Menlo Park's Sunset Gardens in 1993, playing Shoreline Amphitheatre's popular New Orleans by the Bay jazz festival in 1995, and sit-in performances with vocalist Diane Schuur and Benoit earlier this year at Saratoga's Villa Montalvo. In 1995, he recorded a demo tape of songs at Benoit's studio in Los Angeles that included a duet with the famed pianist himself.

"I think Taylor is one of the young, jazz geniuses of the piano," Benoit said by telephone. "At age 13, he shows remarkable dexterity and ability and a lot of confidence."

Eigsti has also composed a large number of songs and, if that is not unusual enough, he is currently arranging one of his own numbers for a performance by the school orchestra.

Menlo Park's Cole Dalton has been instructing Eigsti in piano for almost two years, helping him with technique and encouraging the boy to relax while playing. A full-time piano teacher for 18 years, and a part-time one before that, Dalton is very careful about using the term prodigy.

"(Eigsti) has a tremendous amount of natural ability, and he has probably one of the most sophisticated musician's ears that I have run into for a student, at his or any age," Dalton said. "I think he's a wonderfully talented musician, and he's young, so you can make of that what you want."

Eigsti has heard the term child prodigy used quite a bit, but that's not how he wants to see himself. He prefers to see himself as a regular kid who takes part in regular kid activities and also plays the piano pretty well. He knows the social stigma that can be associated with being tagged a prodigy.

"The cruelest comment that I heard, that hurt me most, (was when) some guy once said, 'Sure he can play the piano, but can he throw the ball,'" Taylor said. "That just steamed me up. I wanted to take that guy on in basketball."

And there's a good chance that the young pianist would have beaten the critic in a game of one-on-one. Last season, Eigsti was chosen as the MVP for his school basketball team.

Woodside is leading St. Matthew's, 6-0, late in an October game, and Priory flag football coach Doug Sargent decides to make a gutsy call. It's fourth and 15, and instead of bringing on the punting team, Sargent decides to go for it. The quarterback takes the snap and eyes his options. Eigsti isn't open; in fact, the 5-foot-2-inch, 100-pound receiver is swarmed by defenders.

"(Eigsti) was triple-covered and the quarterback threw it to him," Sargent said.

Eigsti made the catch for 25 yards and the crucial first down. Woodside kept the drive alive and hung on to win. Sargent would later call the catch one of the best he has ever seen a Priory student make.

"I know he's got other things going on where he's a prodigy," Sargent said. "But out here we just treat him like a normal kid." Well-rounded may be a more appropriate term for Eigsti. Besides excelling at the piano and at sports, he is an exceptional student. He scored all A's both semesters as a seventh grader, but he thinks he might not do quite as well this year.

"A B-plus is a possibility--probably not," Eigsti said, referring to one of his classes. "I might get a few A-minuses this year."

If Eigsti is a child prodigy, then he's definitely not the stereotypical version of one, holed up in a room practicing piano all day by himself, to the neglect of everything else in life.

"He's quite a guy. He's just very talented and yet he's just a boy. (He's a) good student, good athlete and when he sits down at the piano, he can make your socks go up and down," said Marianne Stoner, director of the middle school at Woodside Priory.

"He does have a very well-rounded life," said Eigsti's mom, Nancy. "People have always attributed that to us as parents, but we haven't had a choice. That's the life Taylor wants to live."

But since, like a surgeon, Eigsti's future is literally in his hands, there is an understandable concern whenever he jams a finger catching a ball or catches himself falling to the hardwood floor.

"If I had his talent I don't know if I'd be out playing football and basketball. I'd be worried about my hands," said Tim Molak, Woodside Priory headmaster.

But the athlete, honor student and jazz pianist keeps right on his own course.

"I think if you want to enjoy what you do, you have to do other things as well," Eigsti said. "Music is my life but it doesn't take up the whole thing.

"I'm more than just a piano-playing machine."

Eigsti is blessed with talent. He's also had more than his share of tragedy in his 13 years. His father, Steve, and sister, Shannon, both died from cancer. Both made lasting impressions on him as well as on his musical development. Music played a big part in the lives of his parents. Nancy and Steve Eigsti first met at a radio station in Indiana, where they both worked. Steve Eigsti played drums, and the couple's daughter played piano with the Menlo Atherton jazz band. She was a talented musician in her own right, once performing with the Doobie Brothers at Shoreline Amphitheatre.

Cancer took Shannon at the age of 17, but Taylor, who was just three at the time, remembers hearing her perform.

"I guess I kind of got the feeling that I wanted to be like her a little bit," he said.

His father's passing was more recent. Diagnosed with cancer in July 1996, he died in March. Friends and family say Eigsti reportedly held up remarkably well during his father's sickness and death. The Woodside Priory staff was impressed that there was no noticeable backlash in his behavior or change in his school work.

"I guess you could say I've trained myself to get through things," Eigsti said. "But it's still hard because I miss him a lot."

Music has been very therapeutic for Eigsti in these difficult times, his mother believes.

"I think his music was a big focus. I think he is able to pour all of this emotion into his music, and so it doesn't come out in a negative way, and it is released," said Nancy Eigsti.

"I'm a musician and so my music helps me get through things," Taylor Eigsti agreed. "I can take out anger and sadness, and the other 20 zillion feelings that people get, on the piano."

And, indeed, Eigsti did manage to get on with his life in a triumphant fashion. He played in a basketball game just one day after his dad died--and scored the winning basket. He also performed the piano music at his father's funeral.

One of his father's final wishes was for Taylor to soon have a grand piano to perform with. On Oct. 4, Taylor got the Steinway Boston--one of the best pianos made for jazz performers.

The Eigstis knew early on that their only son was interested in piano. Nancy Eigsti tells stories of how young Taylor's attention was continually drawn to the family's piano. "He was going to the piano a lot and putting his hands on the keys," she remembered. "By the age of four, we thought he might be ready for lessons."

Eigsti's first piano instructor didn't work out. She reportedly had a problem dealing with an opinionated youngster who didn't want to follow the regular training course.

"I don't think she thought he was listening to her because he wasn't feeding back to her what she wanted," Nancy Eigsti explained.

He lasted longer with a second traditional piano teacher, who would eventually recommend that Eigsti seek the services of a jazz instructor. And so, at age 6, he hooked up with Randy Masters at the Community School of Music and Art in Mountain View. Masters is currently one of three instructors providing lessons for Eigsti.

"I wasn't really moved by (classical music) in the beginning," said Eigsti, who has since come to a higher appreciation of that musical form. "Improvising is what I like best because it gives you a chance to express yourself in any song. In classical, it's just reading notes off the page."

He believes that music teachers should allow kids more freedom to learn the type of music that they are interested in. Eigsti, for instance, needed jazz.

"I think the more jazz teachers you can get out in the world, the better," he said.

Not long after Masters became his teacher, Eigsti began composing his own works.

"I think I wrote my first song when I was 7," he said.

To date, Eigsti has written about 40 songs. Not all of the pieces are good, he said, but still he keeps them all around.

"I never throw anything away because I can always go back and pick out ideas," he explained.

He doesn't like to rush his composing, but the music can come quickly if he wants it to.

"I can scratch out a song in like 10 minutes," he said, moving over to the grand piano. "Here's a random song. I'm making it up on the spot."

The schools that Eigsti has attended have long made use of his talent. Woodside Priory is no different. He has written a piece for the school's 40th anniversary that he also wants to arrange for a full-orchestra performance. This is in addition to his piece, "The Beginning of the End," which he is currently arranging for the school's orchestra.

"Ideas just kind of pop into my head," he explained.

Eigsti's notoriety took a major jump when, in 1993, Bill Graham Presents contacted the Community School of Music and Art looking for someone to open for David Benoit at Sunset Gardens. The school picked Eigsti, a major fan of Benoit's work. The young pianist and the famed pianist quickly established a relationship that continues to this day. "I'm really good friends with David. He's been my idol for a long time," Eigsti said. "By the time I was 8, I knew most of his songs."

Although he's still in eighth grade, Eigsti is already planning for the future. He wants to go to Stanford and then continue on to a career in the professional music world.

"My ultimate goal is to perform at Carnegie Hall and just become famous and stuff."

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