11 Year-Old Piano Prodigy Receives Life-Changing Grant from Carrie Lazarus Fund for Extraordinary Talent

For Hee Jung Michel, watching the other young artists perform at Extraordinary Live was the easy part. When her son, 11-year-old Kaelem Michel, took his place at the piano onstage, she felt a rush of nerves.

It was the biggest concert Kaelem had ever played. Though he had rehearsed prior to the event, he was anxious as he waited to go on in front of the audience of more than 1,000 people at the John H. Mulroy Civic Center. There were many familiar faces in the crowd, including his piano teacher, friends and family.

It became clear as Kaelem’s performance ended that the pair had nothing to worry about. Kaelem’s talent brought audience members to tears, and as the event ended he even signed autographs for some younger kids.

“I remember being surrounded by bright lights,” Kaelem recalled. “It was huge and probably something I’ll never forget.”

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The event came a little less than a year after the Michel family received a life-changing grant from the Carrie Lazarus Fund for Extraordinary Talent, which is administered by the Central New York Community Foundation.

The idea for the fund originated from Lazarus’s television show, Extraordinary, which profiles talented young performing artists of Central New York. The program airs on Channel 9 WSYR where Lazarus has been a long-time news anchor.

Early on in the series’ production, Lazarus realized that many of the young creatives she profiled faced financial roadblocks in achieving their dreams―whether it be to purchase new instruments, attend workshops or receive private lessons.

Tevin Johnson was once featured on Extraordinary. He auditioned and was accepted to the prestigious Alvin Ailey Summer Dance Program in New York City, but his family couldn’t afford summer housing in NYC.

“Tevin was the first student we helped,” Lazarus said. “I decided after meeting him to establish a charitable fund. I think talent should not be limited by opportunity.”

Lazarus worked with the Central New York Community Foundation to establish her fund, which is designed to help musicians, singers and dancers with financial need reach their fullest potential by funding the expenses of lessons, instruments and other special opportunities. Lazarus said that having the fund managed through Community Foundation helped her acquire corporate sponsors and individual donors.

“Everybody knows that the Community Foundation is just a stellar organization with impeccable integrity,” Lazarus said. “That (association) tells people right away that it’s being properly managed, that we’re following the rules, and that we are operating with integrity.”

Lazarus continues to fundraise to increase the charitable dollars available to support local youth. Lazarus noted that in many schools athletics receives an overwhelming amount of attention compared to the arts.

“I think we need to send a message to these kids that what they’re doing is important and it matters,” Lazarus said. “Long after a high school lacrosse player puts down their stick, many of these kids will be performing for the rest of their lives.”

Almost five years after Lazarus’s fund was established, Kaelem and his family were shopping for a piano, largely focusing on used instruments because of the hefty price tag. The family’s small, upright piano was no longer sufficient for Kaelem who was now composing his own work. A music store manager suggested they look into the Carrie Lazarus Fund for Extraordinary Talent.cw_1jbduqaapkqq

Not long after that, Lazarus received a letter from Kaelem’s piano teacher.

“When she sent me that letter that said, ‘I’ve never had a kid like Kaelem Michel,’ and she’d been teaching for 60 years, that’s a pretty big statement,” Lazarus said. “She called him a prodigy. Music teachers don’t use that word lightly.”

The letter came with a funding request for a piano that would help take his talent to the next level. In part thanks to assistance received from the Lazarus Fund, the Michel family was able to purchase a brand new Boston piano.

“It’s starting to help my muscles develop in my hands, and that will help me in the future a lot,” Kaelem said. “If I want to play professionally, I need developed muscles. Plus, it’s way cooler.”

Kaelem also plays the recorder and alto recorder. He says it’s his dream to play professionally. He’s inspired by classic composers including Chopin, Beethoven, and Mozart. But he also looks up to younger pianists like Yuja Wang and Daniil Trifonov.

“This is a child who was born with an unbelievable gift,” Lazarus said. “Why should he not have the best possible chance of living out his dream of becoming a top professional musician?”

To learn more about the Carrie Lazarus Fund for Extraordinary Talent’s application process, or to make a contribution to help students with artistic potential, visit www.cnycf.org/lazarus.

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