East Lansing mom with Stage 4 cancer gets chance to hear her son practice piano again

EAST LANSING, MICH. - The past 12 years haven't been kind to the small brown piano that Ann Olsen gave to her son, Kalil, when he was five.

The teaching piano was used, even then. It cost $250.

Kalil took his seat at the instrument on Wednesday and began playing Aram Khachaturian's "Toccata". The entire instrument was woefully out of tune. Several keys didn't sound when Kalil pressed them.

Lately, Kalil has gone to East Lansing High School or Michigan State University to practice.

Thanks to his talent, he’ll no longer have to.

Kalil was recently named the first winner of Yamaha Music and Wellness Institute’s Brian Jemelian Award for Outstanding Achievement. The award came with a brand new digital piano, delivered Wednesday.

Having a better instrument at home will mean “a lot less time spent traveling, which is nice,” Kalil said.

It’s also music to his mother’s ears.

“To be able to have him practice at home, to be able to listen to him create music is therapeutic for me,” Ann Olsen said.

She was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer in April. It’s her third cancer diagnosis. She underwent back surgery in May to address a massive tumor wrapped around her spine. Olsen said doctors are focused on her quality of life at this point rather than trying to cure the disease.

“No one ever knows what our number of days are,” she said. She's looking forward to hearing her son practice.

An East Lansing High School senior, Kalil applied to MSU. If he's accepted, he plans to live at home his freshman year.

He plans to major in computer science with a minor in music. He’s been taking apart computers since he was 11 and works for a local network security company. He's also a member of several school bands and the Mid-Michigan Youth Symphony. 

MSU’s campus is a familiar place for the 17-year-old. He’s been taking private music lessons with MSU professor Derek Polischuk for about a decade. He also plays French horn, trumpet and mellophone. 

“Kalil is a very emotionally committed musician," Polischuk said. “When he gives a performance, it’s clear he feels deeply about the music."

Kalil is on the autism spectrum. 

“He made the statement to me this morning that music is a way to get into contact with his feelings and express them,” his mother said. “He feels the music, he plays the piano with his whole body.”

Kalil is Olsen's fifth child. During her pregnancy, doctors worried Kalil would have shortened legs and Down syndrome. He was born prematurely but didn't have the issues doctors worried about. His name in Hebrew means entire, whole and perfect.

Kalil recently participated in the “Celebrating the Spectrum: A Festival of Music and Life” program at MSU. The event aims to give a preview of college to students on the autism spectrum. His piano performance there was what caught the eye of Yamaha representatives. Fresh off her back surgery, Ann Olsen attended with the aid of a walker.

After Kalil took his final turn on his longtime instrument, movers from Marshall Music took it out on a wheeled cart and loaded it onto a truck.

The new piano was much lighter, easily carried up the stairs by the movers, who stayed to listen to Kalil try it out at Ann Olsen's behest. 

He took another shot at “Khachaturian Toccata”. 

This time, the keys sounded his peerless playing properly.

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© 2017 Lansing State Journal


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