BYU Today

A Grand Accomplishment


Brandon Stewart

A BYU piano student finds the keys to success in hard work and balancing life’s demands. Photo by Bradley Slade.

Brandon K. Stewart (’06) was newly married and money was tight. So when the piano performance major decided to pay $100 to enter the Music Teachers National Association piano competition, he aimed for the grand prize: a $45,000 Steinway grand piano.

“It was never ’I wonder if I can do this’ with him,” says Irene Peery-Fox, Stewart’s piano teacher and a professor in the School of Music. “It was always ’I’m going to go in and nail this. I’m going for the Steinway.’”

The goal was lofty. Stewart had returned from his mission just over a year before the state competition, and, like an athlete, he needed to spend months rebuilding his playing abilities. For the competition, he would have to prepare 90 minutes of music, including a piano concerto by Johannes Brahms. Having played the piano since he was 4 years old, he knew what he had to do: he practiced between five and eight hours a day, until, he says, “my fingertips would hurt so bad that I would have to stop.”

In October 2004 Stewart competed against seven contestants from Utah and was selected to go to the regional competition in California, his home state, in January 2005. His victory was exciting, but it also meant more practicing and more time away from his wife, who was pregnant and sick but would nonetheless push him out the door to practice. With only an electric keyboard at home, he had to practice in Peery-Fox’s studio, sometimes until late at night.

After a second triumph in January, Stewart was selected to play at the national competition in Seattle in April. He knew most of his six competitors would be coming from music conservatories, where piano was the sole focus. As husband of an expectant wife, the competition was not always the only thing on his mind. “I felt like I was putting first things first, and I felt like I was being blessed for that,” he says. With the birth of his daughter, Ashley, in February, he says, “I definitely felt like I was working harder. The emotions were stronger, and my playing, I think, was more expressive.”

On the morning of the national competition, Stewart was calm. It was raining outside, and he stayed inside his hotel room, relaxing and practicing silently in his mind. “I really wasn’t worried. I had done all I could do to prepare and all I had to offer at that point was my individuality and to show how emotionally connected I was to my pieces.”

After the first four competitors performed for the three judges, Stewart, who did not watch their performances, came out onto the stage and sat at the piano, where, he says, “I just focused on what I was trying to say with the music.”

Peery-Fox, who had accompanied him to Seattle and had watched the other competitors, was thrilled. “He gave a spectacular performance. He had a different sound than the other players, but his projection of his musical ideas to the judges was what set him apart.”

As Stewart waited for the judges to select the winner, his nerves reacted. “I felt sick,” he says. But when he stood on the stage with the other contestants, he felt gratitude upon hearing his name announced as the winner. “There was no way that I could have done it on my own. I know I was just really blessed.”

The months since the event have been a whirlwind. Stewart flew to New York to pick out an ebony Steinway to replace his electric keyboard. He moved his family into a townhouse that would accommodate their new piano. He has dates to perform his Brahms concerto with the Utah Valley Symphony and the Utah Symphony. And he’s been playing catch-up with his wife and daughter.

His win “still feels so surreal,” he says, but he’s grateful for the doors it will open as he continues performing and applies to graduate schools, where he will likely study to be a music professor.

Wherever he goes, says Peery-Fox, his winning streak is likely to follow. “What sets Brandon apart is his positive attitude. He has a very natural charisma in his style, but he works so hard in everything he does. He’s just a wonderful human being, and I think people like that have more of a chance of succeeding.”