By Denise Dick
Michael Nichols, 16, doesn’t so much tickle as massage the ivories.
His fingers danced across the keys as he performed “The White Peacock” by Charles Griffes on the piano in the front room of his South Side home.
And he speaks with reverence about composers that most lay people have never heard of.
But up until about a week ago, Michael, a junior at Chaney’s Visual and Performing Arts school, didn’t have a piano at home.
“He’s certainly one of the most gifted young pianists to come along in a long time,” said Anthony Ruggiero, VPA piano enrichment instructor at the school.
“He has wonderful potential. He’s a great student at Chaney VPA. He’s certainly one of the reasons we would want to have a school like this.”
Michael studies with Ruggiero at school. One day a couple of weeks ago, the instructor asked the student if he had a piano at home.
Michael explained that he didn’t and that his mother took him to Youngstown State University, where Michael takes piano lessons, to practice.
“For the talent that he’s showing, to not have a piano was mind-boggling to me,” Ruggiero said.
Later that day, he got a call from Mardell Ritter of Boardman, a member of Martin Luther Lutheran Church where Ruggiero is the music director.
Ritter explained that her son, Dave, had been offered a smaller, spinet piano for his daughter and asked if Ruggiero knew someone who wanted the old piano, an upright.
“I nearly dropped the phone,” Ruggiero said. “I told her ‘yes’ and that I would be back in touch.”
Ritter said that the piano came from the church about seven years ago when her granddaughter first started taking lessons.
Within three days, Michael had the Ritters’ old piano at his home.
Ritter’s husband, two sons, son-in-law and Ruggiero delivered the piano to Michael.
“He sat down and played,” she said. “They were impressed. He’s very talented.”
Ritter met the young musician a couple of years ago when he played at her church.
“It’s just really one of those cozy moments,” she said. “I was just delighted — really delighted that we found someone who could use the piano in the first place and then to find out it was this talented young man.”
Ruggiero said the day he asked Michael about the piano and got the call from Mardell was special.
“I don’t know what forces were in the room that day,” Ruggiero said. “It was certainly something special that day.”
Michael isn’t sure where his love of classical music comes from, but it started when he was 11.
“I was at Target, and I heard Beethoven’s ‘Sonata Path tique’ on a Casio keyboard, and I started tearing up,” he said.
His mother bought the keyboard for him for Christmas, he taught himself to read music, and by March of that year, he was playing the theme from “The Titanic.”
“I knew then that I had to get him lessons,” his mother, Shirley, said.
Initially he took lessons at a Market Street music store and that’s where Shirley realized her son had a gift.
“When he was waiting for his lesson, he would play, and people would just stop and listen,” she said. “When he was finished, people would just applaud.”
Michael finds playing soothing but has a hard time picking a favorite piece. “I can’t stand much Beethoven or Bach,” he said, adding that he prefers more modern classical.
He lists Maurice Ravel’s “Gaspard de la Nuit,” written in 1908, as one of the pieces he enjoys now. He first heard it while at YSU’s Dana School of Music.
“It has gorgeous chords,” Michael said. “It’s actually very dark. It’s based on a poem called ‘Gallows’ but it’s beautiful. I just heard a small part of it, but for that 20 seconds I forgot where I was.”
He discovers new artists and arrangements surfing the Web and boasts a collection of classical works.
Michael hasn’t decided on a career path and acknowledged that music is a difficult business to break into.
“I hope to have some type of career in music,” he said.
His instructor looks forward to seeing Michael mature as an artist.
“He’s so intellectual and eager and open to being taught and being directed, and it takes that for a young person...” Ruggiero said.
As his talent grows, matures and develops, Michael’s personality will begin to come through the music even more.
“I’m so excited to see as a very talented, mature person, how he will play when he gets there,” Ruggiero said.