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Unlike a great deal of collegiate pianists, Leo Martinez didn’t start from a young age, dangling his feet to reach the pedals. He merely had an inkling of desire to play and a black Yamaha Grand Piano in his choir room to stare at.
“I was a sophomore in high school, and I had never seen a grand,” he said. “Everybody had an upright, but a grand seemed like a magnificent instrument. I became obsessed with learning how to play the piano. Believe it or not, I actually went onto YouTube with my 1970 Casio 44-key keyboard and learned all my scales and chords. I learned music theory before I learned technique.”
Hobby turned to passion within a year as YouTube fueled his study. As a junior, Martinez said, he began to take his playing more seriously and often got kicked out of his band room for playing for too long. He played his Casio so much the black keys broke off, and he eventually had to replace the inner workings of his replacement piano, a Clavinova.
“I really learned everything off of YouTube,” he said. “It’s amazing to look at how far I’ve come, from YouTube to Rachmaninoff, and it’s astonishing.”
While Martinez said he is surprised by his progress with the piano, his love of music is not new.
“I always loved classical music, but my passion didn’t really come into fruition until I was a junior,” he said. “I credit my parents for inculcating me with this love. It’s kind of a family thing, though I’m the only one that plays an instrument.”
Like many, Martinez said he is continually impressed by the Sid & Mary Foulger School of Music’s piano program.
“I came into the program when I met Dr. Van der Beek,” he said. “He walked in while I was playing a Schubert Impromptu. He set me up with a private teacher, and the rest is history. They took me, a key-banging know-nothing, and gave me the skills to be in this program. The quality of the teaching alone is enough to keep me here forever.”
Martinez plans to put on his junior recital this coming spring, in which he hopes to play selections from lesser-known composers, but he said he thinks he’ll have to fight for what he wants to play.
“There’s a selection of music that’s completely untapped,” he said. “Bach, Mozart, Chopin, they’re all great, but there are so many other composers that are great, but obscure. Even though it’s not well known, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be played.” He said teachers in the past have not allowed him to play pieces composed by Alcon and Dvorak.
Outside of the piano, Martinez said, he has a busy and adventurous life. He works almost full-time, plays golf and swims, and he said he is a high adventure-seeker.
“Mountain-biking, bungee-jumping — I’m going sky-diving this summer — anything I can get an adrenaline rush from,” he said. “I don’t do that as much anymore; if I break my hands, my professors will kill me. Basically, I really like anything dangerous.”