NEWRY – He just turned 5 years old, and his little feet don’t even reach the pedals. He hasn’t learned how to read music, let alone the written word.
But when Noah Gray-Cabey sits down at the piano, there’s nothing childlike in his focus and serious expression. His world becomes the keyboard, his fingers, the point of contact. Hands poised over the keys, Noah begins to play, and a natural-born talent takes over.
His first solo was at age 4, with a full orchestra at a church in Brunswick.
In eight short months since the day he begged his father to let him take a turn at the ivories, Noah has learned enough, playing from memory, to become the youngest soloist ever in the history of the New England Youth Ensemble, based in Washington, D.C.
With his mom and dad, brothers and sister – all accomplished musicians in their own right – he’s spent the past three weeks on tour in Jamaica with the New England Symphonic Ensemble, an orchestra of mostly college-age students. Noah performed solo with that ensemble in benefit concerts to raise money for a local Jamaican hospital and orphanage.
He’ll also plays solo pieces with his musical family, The Gray-Cabey Family Ensemble.
“It’s pretty extraordinary,” said his mother, Whitney Gray-Cabey. “We really had no idea how fast he’d take off.”
Even when he’s not at the piano, Noah’s fingers are in constant motion, unconsciously recreating the positions of chords and musical passages. He even does it in his sleep, his mother said.
He rehearses two to four hours a day at his home in the Bear River Valley in Newry, and travels to Massachusetts once a month to rehearse with the ensemble. When it comes time to leave the piano, Noah as often as not is reluctant, pleading with his parents for a little more time so he can get it right. “You can’t get him to stop,” Whitney said.
It all started one night when his dad, Shawn Gray-Cabey, began playing something he’d learned when he was 8 years old.
Noah, sitting beside him on the piano bench, suddenly looked up at him and said, “Show me, Daddy.”
At first, Shawn was reluctant. He’s too young, he thought. Though he hoped to interest his son in the piano in a few years, Shawn felt his son would only become frustrated if he tried to play at age 4.
But Noah was persistent. So Shawn went through the first measure slowly, telling Noah to watch his fingers as they moved along the keys.
Noah watched intently, then when it was his turn he repeated the measure without missing a note.
“One measure after another, he played them all back, and within three weeks he had the whole piece,” said Whitney. “That really surprised us; we had no idea. His dad thought it would take him three months.”
In Jamaica, Noah soloed with a traditional Jamaican folk song, a Bach prelude, “He’s Got The Whole World in His Hands,” and “Avalace,” by Stephen Heller.
“He could be playing really competitive stuff, but right now his little hands can’t do it,” said Whitney. “He can’t even reach a whole octave. But he’s learning to make up for it by increasing his extension. He’s getting so strong.”
But the child in him is never very far. As the family prepared to leave for the last big rehearsal with the ensemble before the Jamaican trip, Noah asked his parents, “Can I please wear my Superman outfit with cape?”
His parents gave in.
In recent years music has become the center of the Gray-Cabey household, said Whitney. Noah’s sister, Bryanna, 10, plays violin; his brother Zack, 12, the cello; and his other brother Nick, 14, the viola.
Whitney, 36, played violin as a child and sings with the family ensemble. Shawn, 34, taught himself the violin so he could perform with the family and let Noah have the spotlight on the piano.
“This house is full of music and noise and sound every day, yet I know these years are the best of my life,” said Whitney. “It’s going to be really quiet one day.”