An East Helena teen is set to face off against six other top qualifying young pianists in a national competition in California this weekend.
Tess Michel, 18, will be competing in the national Music Teachers National Association Senior Performance Competition in Anaheim, Calif. on March 10.
Michel, who is one of 12 homeschooled siblings, will play roughly 30 minutes worth of music from memory during the competition.
Sitting at a black Brodman grand piano in her family’s East Helena home Wednesday afternoon, Michel said that she normally only practices one or two hours a day, but in preparation for the national competition she has been practicing between two and three hours per day.
Her fingers danced across the piano’s keys as she played “Jeux D’eau” by French composer Maurice Ravel. The five-minute song, which she played from memory without error, is one of several pieces she plans to play at the national competition.
It took her six months to memorize the complex, fast-paced song, she said.
To qualify for the contest, Michel took first place in the Senior Performance Division of the Northwest Regional MTNA competition in January. Hundreds of students from six states competed in the event. Michel is the first Montanan to win the regional competition since 2006.
In addition to excelling in piano, Michel is also a standout harpist; she has been the principal harpist in the Helena Symphony since 2011. In that year and in 2009, Michel also finished in the top five in the biannual American Harp Society National Competition.
“I would say it’s probably extremely rare that a kid would make national finals in two different instruments,” said Michel’s father, Andrew. “This is a pretty difficult competition. Most of the kids are pre-conservatory level at Juliard (or) something along those lines.
“I feel like it has nothing to do with us, it’s all her,” he added. “We’re happy to participate.”
Michel, who has been playing piano for 13 years, says that peer pressure has pushed her to succeed as a musician.
Her older sisters and brother have all excelled in music. Her sister Lydia, who is studying music at Texas Christian University on an academic scholarship, preceded Michel as the principal harpist for the Helena Symphony.
“I’m just so honored to be her mother,” said Michel’s mother, Teri. “Such an extraordinary daughter who has worked so hard and devoted herself to all of her pursuits. When one of our children shows interest, we go with it. Making every opportunity possible for them to pursue as far as they can whatever it is they want to do.”
Exergy Outreach LLC, the charitable giving arm of Exergy Development, is flying Michel to Anaheim.
The company, which develops renewable energy, has offices and projects in Montana.
Exergy Outreach has supported the Helena Symphony, the Great Falls Symphony and the Montana Association of Symphony Orchestras’ Young Artist Com-petition with personal donations, orchestra equipment, season and youth concert sponsorships, masterworks naming rights and debt relief donations totaling almost $1 million since 2005, according to Peter Bogy, director of the organization.
When she was 12, Michel played harp for an episode of National Public Radio’s “From the Top.” The episode, which aired from Bozeman, also featured Michel and her family as they discussed classical music and being homeschooled.
Michel says hearing harp in such Disney films as the “The Aristocats” and “Charlotte’s Web” and the BBC’s “Peter Rabbit (Perfect Day)” contributed to her early interest in music.
Michel said she is not sure if music is something that she wants to pursue professionally and that she plans to take at least a year off before attending college.
“Every once in a while during a teacher's career, there comes along a student that taps into your creative mind, follows your passion of music and possesses a dedicated work ethic. That student for me has been Tess Michel,” said Ken Christensen, Michel’s piano teacher, in a press release.
Christensen has been Michel’s teacher for seven years, is an international solo pianist, president-elect of the Music Teachers National Association and a recipient of the Award in Excellence in Teaching.
“It has been a pleasure to see her grow not only as a fine musician, but into a confident young adult,” he said. “I am truly proud of her accomplishments.”