In the Mind and the Heart

Music was made to share, according to this world-class LDS pianist.

The small auditorium was brimming with people, most of them family friends and relatives. As a young man dressed in a formal black suit, white shirt, and black bow tie entered from a hallway to the rear of the stage, the audience began applauding. But when he stopped before the piano he was about to play and indicated he had something to say, the applause subsided.

“This concert, as you know, is dedicated to my 99-year-old grandmother Alice L. Kenner,” he said. “I would like to tell her that I love her very much.” Then the applause began again.

Only a couple of days before, Kevin Kenner, 19, had been a semifinalist in the 1982 Gina Bachauer International Piano Competition held in Salt Lake City, Utah. The Bachauer competition is considered one of the top piano events in the United States, narrowing a field of 200 entrants from all over the world down to 50 performers, then 15 semifinalists and six finalists. The winner not only receives a piano and prize money, but also a recital opportunity in New York.

Although Kevin didn’t make it to the finals (as he has in other competition), he was given a special recognition as the “most promising performer.” He was glad to receive the recognition, but he was also disappointed that he hadn’t made it beyond the top 15. He could have packed his bags and returned home to California to the rigorous practice schedule he had set to prepare for school in the fall.

Instead, Kevin was giving a free performance, open to anyone. That’s the kind of person he is. “It’s fine to make music for yourself, and sometimes you want to make music for music’s sake or for the judges,” he said. “But music is at its best when you share it with others. Audiences are who you make the music for.”

Kevin is an elder in the Imperial Beach Ward, Chula Vista California Stake, and he often shares his talents there. “I enjoy playing the opening hymn or closing hymn. They’ll ask me to do that when the organist isn’t there,” he said. “And it’s always fun to play in sacrament meeting. Music is very important in the Church because it builds people spiritually. Music is a very direct form of communication. It goes directly to the heart.”

Kevin has also been a speaker and performer at a number of firesides with nonmember guests in attendance. “At each of these firesides I have had the opportunity to speak of the Church influence in my life,” he said, “and to bear my testimony. A number of people told me they were as impressed with my testimony as they were with my playing, and I know that some people have become interested in the Church because of my playing.”

Such was the case when, at age 17, Kevin competed in the Tenth International Chopin Competition in Warsaw, Poland. He placed tenth out of 180 contestants from 37 countries and was the only American of 31 in the competition to receive an award. He was also honored as the youngest contestant ever in the history of the competition. All the other entrants were graduates of college or the equivalent, and the field of contestants included 22 graduates from New York’s Julliard School of Music.

To prepare for the competition, and to take advantage of an opportunity to study with a Polish professor named Ludwik Stefanski, Kevin and his mother moved to Poland for the summer before and the first semester of his senior year in high school.

“A lot of people in Poland had heard about the Mormons, but they really knew little about them,” Kevin said. “One time, though, there was a program on Polish television about Brigham Young leading the pioneers.

“Once when we were eating dinner, a man said, ‘Why did you stop eating your chicken? Are you Mormon?’ I got to explain to him that indeed I was Mormon, but that I had stopped eating my chicken because I was full. I got to teach many people a little bit about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Many didn’t even know that Mormons are Christians.”

Kevin said he also feels that he was able to touch people through his performance on stage. “People have told me they can feel something different in my music. I hope it’s because I try to convey the Spirit through the things I play.” The Chopin Competition is extremely popular throughout the country, and Kevin became something of a hero to many of the young people. At one performance some young fans stood just in front of the stage for the entire performance because there weren’t enough seats.

Despite critical food shortages, the Poles went out of their way to make sure Kevin and his mother were fed. “It was great to see how the people would help each other. They would help us, too, even though we were foreigners. They would bring food from the farms so we could eat. They wanted me to do well as a pianist, to be well fed so that I could practice hard, have good lessons, and do well in the competition.

“I know the Lord watched over my mother and me at all times,” Kevin said. “He helped me to prepare and to perform at my best. He also helped us make some wonderful friends, and I think the Lord used them as an instrument to bless our lives.”

Sister Juanita Kenner, Kevin’s mother, said that in spite of widespread shortages, the Polish people were happy and cheerful. “Their spirits are buoyant although they live on very little,” she said. “They have a great love for their country, and they have strong religious ties, which are probably the real strength of their country.” She also was impressed with the Poles’ reverence for the Sabbath—all shops are closed from Saturday evening until Monday.

Sister Kenner and Kevin were “hungry” for LDS Church meetings while in Poland but observed the Sabbath by reading and studying the scriptures together. Kevin received permission to prepare and administer the sacrament for himself and his mother. They were grateful when Kevin’s father, H. Park Kenner (who is also their bishop), was able to join them for the final piano competition.

In order to graduate from high school, Kevin had to return to the U.S. soon after the Chopin Competition. But the Polish influence remains strong in his music. “Because I’ve had Polish teachers, my style is more from the Polish school than from elsewhere,” he said. “And though I like all composers, Chopin seems to be the easiest for me to perform.”

He does listen to other types of music. “I turn on the radio once in a while and listen to modern music and jazz. It helps me to realize how beautiful classical music really is. There are many varieties of classical music, many different eras to study. And you do have to study to fully appreciate it. You have to be willing to learn about the composer, the pieces, and theory. It may not be as easy to listen to at first, but in the long run it’s much more valuable, and I think it’s much more wholesome music. It’s very good for the spirit.”

Kevin routinely practices from four to six hours a day, six hours or more when preparing for a recital or a concert. “It isn’t always easy or fun to work at the piano for that long, but it is rewarding. Sometimes it takes a great deal of practice to get a little improvement. But it is that small improvement that makes the artist.”

The biggest reward, though, is playing for an audience. “The performance is the most important part because that’s where you reach the most people. The more you do it, the more you get used to it. Sometimes I get much more nervous than at other times, depending on how well prepared I am and what kind of mental state I’m in. But I’m always excited about a performance. You don’t know how your audience is feeling that evening, so it’s all up in the air. It’s up to you to make them feel something.

“If you can perform from memory, it’s one less crutch you have to deal with. It’s more important to have your senses centered around your ears and the touch of the keyboard. Then you can concentrate on the mood. The music isn’t a separate thing; it’s a part of you.”

As a child in Virginia, Kevin took an immediate interest in piano. “Before I studied piano I’d go up to the piano and fool around on it, just make some noise,” he said. When Kevin was five, his nine-year-old sister started lessons, and he decided to follow her example. “My mother thought I’d grow tired of it, sitting on the hard bench for a couple of hours. But I didn’t. And that’s when they discovered I had some talent and should continue. My parents have always encouraged me but never forced me. Sometimes when you’re very young your parents have to give you a little push, because you haven’t developed a lot of self-discipline. You really want to practice, but other things seem more important at the moment. Parents can look ahead for you and help you see the road you want to take.”

When Kevin was 10, his family moved back home to California. “By the time I was 12, I had no question I wanted to continue,” he said. “But at 13, I almost stopped when my teacher left on a concert tour and we had to find someone new.” Kevin finally became a student of Krzysztof Brzuza in San Diego and has attended the San Francisco Conservatory. He has also studied under Leon Fleischer at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, Maryland, the oldest conservatory in the U.S.

In addition to his successes in the Bachauer and Chopin competitions, Kevin has also won second prize in 1980 and first prize in 1981 at the Masterplayers International Piano Competition in Lugano, Switzerland, and won first place in the Young Musician’s Foundation National Debut Competition in May 1981. He also received a scholarship for foreign study from the Rotary Foundation, and spent last summer in Spain studying with Professor Stefanski.

“One of the richest blessings of being a musician has been to travel to other countries and meet the people there,” Kevin said. “But traveling and practicing make it hard to fit everything in. Like everyone else, my lifetime goal is to have a happy, well-balanced life.” He reads the scriptures at night, and when he’s traveling he always makes arrangements to attend local church services.

“There’s another advantage with the Church,” he said. “That’s the Word of Wisdom. It’s important to have good physical health. How can a person feel the music if he’s sick and can’t function? So many pianists smoke and you find them in performances and they’re just shaking. They can’t take the pressure. There are people who can’t practice without their coffee. I might be a little tired in the morning, but not to the point where I have to drink something or take a pill to keep awake.”

Kevin also likes to play tennis and has dabbled in photography. “You need discipline and recreation,” he said. “You need to develop other interests for both mental and physical diversion.” But he said that in one way photography reminds him of playing the piano: “An artist creates pictures visually, a pianist creates them aurally.” He also likes to watch the news and has a keen interest in world affairs.

Kevin, though young, has met with considerable success. And he’s learned some important lessons along the way. “I have learned that our Heavenly Father is available to us everywhere, and we can call on him at any time and any place. I am grateful for the opportunity to be a member of the Church and to hold the priesthood.

“I have learned that it is absolutely necessary for a performer to develop his personality, but of course not to the point of egotism. Sitting on a piano bench and practicing for four or five hours every day will in itself keep one pretty humble. I’m grateful for the opportunities I have for playing and competing and I enjoy winning. But I don’t feel I’ve reached a point where I have anything to be conceited about, and I don’t think I ever will. If I were to think I had everything learned, I’d be wrong. Music is something you never finish studying. Learning goes on forever. You can’t stop and think you have it made.

“There are times when I wish I had other people’s talents, just like some people wish they had mine. We should make an effort not to be jealous of others but to work hard ourselves. Even though some things are easier to learn when you’re young, like languages are easier for children, it’s never too late to learn. Perhaps you can’t make a career out of playing the piano. But you can learn to play for pleasure anytime you decide you want to work hard enough to do it.”

There are two major components to playing the piano, according to Kevin, and they both work together. “You always have to feel the music inside—listeners can feel this too. They can feel something from an artist and they love the music as a result. But you also have to have a technical awareness of what’s going on because you have to project the emotion you want to create. There are technical ways of doing this, such as crescendos and diminuendos, all of which are important. But without the feeling inside, you can do everything right and not affect the listener. It’s like having all the wires and no electricity. But of course you have to have the wires to begin with.

“So it’s in the mind and in the heart. And third of all it’s in the hands, because it’s important to have good technique too. But some of the greatest artists did not have very good hands. They had good minds and very good hearts. That’s why you get people like Artur Rubinstein who are 90 years old and still touch people with their music. His technique was no longer great, but his mind was intact and his heart was too.

“I feel that I have an obligation, if I feel something worthwhile, to express it, to let other people know what I feel.” It’s an obligation that Kevin doesn’t take lightly as he shares both his music and his testimony with the world.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Since this story was written, Kevin has returned from Spain, where he won first prize and the sweepstakes award in an international competition. He also won first place in the Musical Merit Foundation Competition, a scholarship for the Aspen Music Festival, New York’s Kosciuszko Foundation Competition, San Francisco’s Steinway Competition, and was a featured soloist in the Salute to Youth Concert with the Utah Symphony. Kevin is now studying piano with Reid Nibley at Brigham Young University and plans further study at Peabody.