by Len Lear
When Joseph Block, of Chestnut Hill, says he has been playing piano his entire life, that statement is not just a figure of speech. Joseph, 19, a prodigy and student at the Juilliard School of Music, the most exclusive music school in the country that only accepts six percent of its applicants (according to U.S. News & World Report), has literally been playing the piano since the age of 2.
“That’s what my parents tell me,” Joseph told us last week, “and I trust them! I personally don’t remember when I started, but I do remember always playing piano in my life. Everyone in my family is a musician. My older sister also started playing piano at a young age, so my parents did the same for me by starting me early. My parents are both in medicine, but they are also huge music fans and musicians on the side.”
Joseph played classical music up to age 13 and then switched to jazz after his father took him down to the Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz and Performing Arts to audition for their stellar jazz program. “I continued studying jazz in that program until I graduated from Germantown Friends School (GFS) in 2017. I now join the long list of Clef Club alumni, which includes legendary musicians such as Christian McBride and Joey DeFrancesco.
“I mainly switched to jazz because I sought more individual creativity in the music I was playing. Don’t get me wrong; I love classical music and am so grateful for the foundation it gave me, especially regarding piano technique and facility, but I guess it was a sign for me to switch when I would repeatedly change Mozart’s notes to my own, much to the dismay of my classical piano teachers. Jazz was intriguing, challenging and new, and it was a risk I took in my musical career that turned out for the better.”
Block is one of three area performers invited to show off their talents while raising money for the Mt. Airy Learning Tree Scholarship Fund. The event, “An Evening of Jazz,” will be held at Grace Lutheran Church, 801 E. Willow Grove Ave. in Wyndmoor, on Sunday, Nov. 4, 4 to 6 p.m.
As if his studies at Juilliard were not rigorous enough, Joseph is also pursuing a degree in American Studies at Columbia University. Why would any student willingly seek such a pressure-filled regimen? “Studying at both Columbia and Juilliard allows me to both study music at a high level and think critically about the world around us,” replied Block.
“As a jazz musician, I want to understand the historical context behind the music I am devoting my life to. My American Studies major allows me to examine the culture and history of the U.S., both in the past and the present. It gives me a framework on which I can perform and create music, music that I want to be informed and grounded in tradition.”
Even as a teenager, Block has already worked with several great jazz musicians. Which one is his favorite? “Definitely Wynton Marsalis. He has been one of my biggest role models and mentors, and he has inspired me to push my limits as a musician and as a person. I am excited to be working with him twice in the upcoming months!”
In addition to his superb performance skill, Joseph is also a composer, having written music with fellow student Shyam Natarajan (now at NYU) for the play “Arcadia” at GFS in 2015. Block was just a junior at the time.
Block was also one of just six jazz finalists in the National YoungArts Foundation competition in 2017 (in all music disciplines they received 7,000 applicants), winning a scholarship “in addition to lots of knowledge and advice, new friends and artistic connections.”
What was the hardest thing Joseph ever had to do? “Super tough question. One of the hardest things I’ve ever physically done is climb a mountain out in Colorado. And going to two colleges at once isn’t easy either, but sacrifice is imperative in order to succeed. I may sleep a little (or a lot) less than I ideally want, but … jazz, and music in general, pushes me every single day. It’s a constant grind to improve and study and work out those concepts that we can’t master yet …
“People, including myself, waste so much time in their lives on social media or other distractions. If you schedule out a time in your day to indulge yourself with all of these external desires, then you will be more productive when working or practicing or studying.”
For more information about the Nov. 4 fundraiser, call 215-843-6333.