During an impromptu photo shoot on Tuesday, freshman piano virtuoso Sam Friedman played an improvisational piece (head lolling forward, eyes occasionally closed) as easily as if he were brushing his teeth. You would never know that two summers ago tendonitis threatened his ability to play.
Music has always been a part of Friedman’s life. His father, Dean Friedman, is a pop and folk singer/songwriter who had a few hit singles on both sides of the Atlantic in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Friedman’s paternal grandmother was a Broadway singer, and his sister played saxophone and has since settled on guitar.
Friedman began tinkering on the piano as a small child, and started taking lessons when he was eight years old. He did what most eight-year-olds do when facing parentally imposed music lessons—put off practicing until right before the lesson, and then only dedicated minimal effort.
Around the time Friedman started lessons, he also began accompanying his father’s annual summer tour in the UK, where he lived for a year. The British public received the elder Friedman’s music warmly, but it wasn’t until middle school that Friedman’s desire to play the music from “Final Fantasy 9” prompted him to take piano more seriously.
As Friedman’s piano skills improved throughout high school, he began touring with his father as a member of the band. Then, in the summer of 2008, overuse led to tendonitis, and Friedman couldn’t even touch an instrument for months while he recovered. While Friedman was recovering during his first semester at Wesleyan, he briefly studied with Music professor and accomplished pianist Neely Bruce, who specializes in rehabilitative playing to improve technique in order to avoid injury.
Friedman opted to come to Wesleyan rather than a conservatory because he fundamentally disagreed with the conservatory pedagogy, and wanted to pursue his interests in math and neuroscience.
“You have music teachers who tell you, ‘You won’t be able to enjoy this music unless you practice these scales,’” he said, “whereas you should be learning through improvising and through the music itself, not seeing the music as the final product. It’s an entire process.”
Friedman has been able to apply his interest in neuroscience to his love for music. According to Friedman, you learn more if you’re learning what you’re doing, not if you’re repeating the same monotonous task over and over hoping things will click. He disagrees with the notion that making children learn scales and other monotonous exercises to learn piano or any other instrument is the only way to teach them.
“Give them something to do, and they’ll do it,” he said of young children, suggesting that that this “something” should be a substantial way for someone to connect with the music and the instrument.
He says his improvisation style is a mixture of jazz and classical.
“I don’t deal with lyrics,” he said. Songwriting is a strength Sam leaves to his father.
Friedman still plays piano (and banjo, vibraphone, and harmonica), but not in a formal capacity. He is a member of the jazz ensemble and jazz orchestra. He plays in the funk band named Fly Machine with other students. He has learned how to assimilate his prodigious musical talent into to the life of a hectic and productive Wesleyan student, while remaining connected to the instrument that shaped his childhood.