Westport music prodigy hits note of triumph despite autism
Music was a part of Ethan Walmark's life even before he was born, and now the 7-year-old Westport piano prodigy and Internet sensation is making a name for himself while also showing the world the infinite potential for children on the autism spectrum.
Ethan, a first-grader at Kings Highway Elementary School, will perform at two high-profile events in New York City next month. At "Autism Speaks to Wall Street: 6th annual Celebrity Chef Gala" on Oct. 9, Ethan is the only music performer on the program. This event will feature 100 leading chefs joining forces to help battle autism. Southport residents Bob and Suzanne Wright are the co-founders of Autism Speaks.
Later that month, Ethan will be featured in "The Genius of Autism," an event sponsored by the McCarton Foundation, which highlights 14 children from around the world who happen to be on the autism spectrum. Each of these invitation-only celebrants will showcase their respective talents in art, animation, dance and music. Ethan was selected based on his piano prowess, according to Allison Ziering Walmark, Ethan's mother.
"My son has a special gift," she said. "He plays piano first thing in the morning and last thing at night. If he's having a rough patch (at school) his teacher and paraprofessional know to give him his personal keyboard and he calms right down," Ziering Walmark said.
She calls music a universal language and said it helps her son with socialization, which is often an issue among those with autism.
Because of her son's brush with fame, Ziering Walmark was asked to write a weekly column for SheKnows.com, a website of interest to women. Her articles are centered on autism, but focus on the brighter side of things.
She has written about the power of music and how it can change someone's life.
Ethan began showing his musical talent when he was only 15 months old. No one had taught him how to play the piano, but suddenly he took to the instrument.
"I was in the kitchen and I heard `Mary Had a Little Lamb' on the piano. My son played it note for note," she said. "That's how it started." Actually, Ethan's introduction to music began much earlier. His maternal grandparents, Sandy and Jerry Ziering, gave him a piano as a gift before he was born, and his father, Michael Walmark, sang to him in utero.
"When Ethan was in her belly I would sing, `Here comes our son,' " (to the tune of the Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun"), said Michael Walmark, who loves music and has a large music library. After his birth, Ethan had trouble sleeping. "I rocked him every night and sang, (the Beatles') `I Will,' " he said.
Michael still sings every day for his son, who really loves "A Day in the Life" and "Rocky Raccoon." But Ethan's musical tastes are not limited to the Beatles' songbook. On Wednesday, he performed an impromptu concert for family and friends, playing piano and sometimes singing along. Sometimes Mom and Dad joined in. His selections included many Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen songs, as well as Pink's "Glitter." He also played a classical piece -- Claude Debussy's "Claire de Lune." And he is developing an interest in jazz.
"I could sit here and listen to him for hours. You never want him to stop. I think it's amazing how he listens to something, processes it immediately and plays it," said Sally Siegal, of Westport, a family friend.
It was Billy Joel's "Piano Man" that made Ethan a YouTube star. Last April, his mother posted a video to that website showing her son playing the signature Joel song and it went viral, leading to national and international television, radio, Internet and newspaper coverage and a guest spot on NBC-TV's "Today Show," where Ethan played live.
Billy Joel, through a spokesman, even released a statement. "I think I like his intro to `Piano Man' better than mine. And this kid plays with a lot more energy than me. Maybe he could teach me a few things," Joel said. He also sent a private message to the Walmark family.
Ethan devises the musical arrangements himself. Other than his music therapy at school, he has not studied piano and uses no sheet music. In fact, often, he doesn't even look at the keys, preferring to look over his shoulder at mom and dad. The arrangements are not simplistic. Some are quite elaborate.
The Walmarks said they are not stage parents and don't plan to pursue opportunities for Ethan, but they won't turn down opportunities that come his way either. Still, Ziering Walmark said it doesn't keep her from dreaming about the possibilities. She can see Ethan as a character on the popular musical television show, "Glee." She envisions a three-episode story arch as the little brother of one of the high school students. It could educate the audience about people with autism and show their capabilities, she said.
Ethan Walmark's "Piano Man" video on YouTube: http://bit.ly/Q4bIE6
Allison Ziering Walmark's latest SheKnows.com column: http://bit.ly/PNgrM8
For more information about the Autism Speaks' gala: http://bit.ly/P0xRlM
For more information about the McCarton Foundation: http://bit.ly/QX6kSU