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Young Jefferson pianist recently toured Italy
12-year-old now preparing to play with band at AthFest
Sean VanMeter plays the piano at the Lee Davis Studio in Maysville. - photo by Tom Reed

If you closed your eyes and listened to Sean VanMeter tickle the ivories, you'd notice he plays with the confidence and skill of the great maestros.

Upon opening your eyes, you'd discover that he's much younger than most professional piano players.

"At first I didn't think I was that good, so I was sort of amazed that anyone else would think I was good," said Sean, a Jefferson resident who began playing the piano when he was 6 years old.

Now 12, Sean may not be old enough to see a rated-R movie alone, but he recently completed a European tour where he played in centuries-old villas and estates.

"When I found out that I would be performing in Italy, I couldn't believe it was real," Sean said. "I practiced even more before my trip. It seemed like a dream."

The young musician was accompanied on the weeklong tour by Lulu White, his godmother, who helped find a piano teacher for Sean six years ago.

"I had never been out of the country before, so the whole experience was amazing and eye opening. We stayed in a 14th century villa where we were treated like royalty," White said. "The most interesting place Sean performed in Italy was Ristorante I Rossi in Pesciano. A group of ex-patriots from around the world had gathered to share a delicious five-course meal and to hear Sean play."

In between touring obligations, Sean and White had the opportunity to do a bit of sightseeing, an opportunity that Sean says gave him a new perspective.

"I realized that what I thought was old, really isn't. In the United States, we think 200 years is old, but in Italy, that's like yesterday," Sean said. "While walking through an 11th century castle, I kept thinking about all of the people who had walked on the same stones centuries ago and what their lives must have been like.

"It was thought-provoking and exciting to be surrounded by such history."

Although his tour abroad has concluded, this piano whiz kid is by no means taking the rest of the summer off. His rock band, the Friday Knights, are gearing up for their performance Sunday at AthFest, a music and arts festival in Athens.

Their center-stage spot was their prize for winning Ram Jam, a music competition for students, which was also held in Athens.

"We played all original songs," Sean said. "I was certainly (surprised) that we won. I thought everyone else was better than we were."

Even though the humble musician was shocked by their win, the band is full of young talent. The members - including the managers - are all sixth- through eighth-grade students.

"We practice together twice a week for a total of about six hours each week," Sean said. "After practice, we relax in the pool so we don't get burned out."

Although he likes to just be a kid from time to time, Sean is a veteran musician.

Under the tutelage of Lee Davis, a Maysville-based musician, songwriter, author and composer, Sean has honed his skills and even recorded a CD.

"He wasn't born a musical genius, but rather has developed his skill through hard work, dedication, long practices and an unstoppable desire to share his music with anyone who will listen," White said. "He began playing at nursing homes and library events, and now he plays for corporate parties, weddings, the Cherry Blossom Festival and the Georgia Music Hall of Fame."

Along the way, Sean has memorized countless compositions by composers like Pyotr Tchaikovsky and Franz Schubert. He's even memorized Frederic Chopin's complicated "Fantasie Impromptu."

"In the big picture, it's much easier to memorize it," Sean said. "Memorizing a piece is a very interesting process. You start by practicing it, getting in the groove. Then you play it over and over again. "Then you try to play it by memory. If you mess up anywhere, you go back and work on just that measure until you have it."

For John VanMeter, seeing how his son has excelled in the music world initially came as a surprise.

"In the beginning, (his mother and I) encouraged him to play music because we knew the relationship between music and academics," VanMeter said. "We wanted him to be better in math, but his talents have really taken off. I always look forward to seeing him perform. He works so hard for what he gets and I'm so proud of him."

Although he's come a long way since his first lessons, Sean says he has no plans of stopping until he accomplishes at least two more goals.

"I want to someday play at Carnegie Hall," Sean said." And I want to have a Steinway Model D sitting in my living room."