She’s performed at the White House, played with countless celebrities and taken the stage at Carnegie Hall, yet Rockford resident Emily Bear is still just a friendly, warm-hearted girl next door.
Rockford resident Emily Bear has experienced things that most of us only dream about.
Emily is a pianist and composer who’s equally comfortable playing jazz or classical music, and is recognized in both worlds, which is extremely rare. She also enjoys playing her own compositions.
At just 12 years old, Emily has performed all over the world. She’s played for heads of state; performed at international festivals; entertained thousands of fans at some of the most iconic venues in the country. She’s recorded six albums of her own material. She’s appeared at Carnegie Hall, on national television programs, and been interviewed by some of the most well-known journalists in the world. And, she’s closing in on 15,000 “likes” on her Facebook fan page.
Not too shabby for a girl who won’t even be a teenager until August.
But to know Emily-the-performer is also to know Emily-the-bright-eyed-girl, who enjoys goofing around with friends and doing handstands in her living room as much as she enjoys thrilling fans with her amazing talents.
“There’s a fluidity and elegance with the way Emily moves and deals with people,” says one of her teachers, Dr. Ron Sadoff, chair of the music department and director of film scoring at New York University’s Steinhardt School. “Still, Emily’s an absolutely normal kid. She’s very organic and very natural. She’s comfortable in her own skin.”
The word that comes to mind when people talk about Emily is “prodigy.” It’s a description, however, that makes her slightly uncomfortable.
“I don’t think it really describes me correctly,” she says. “I’m just myself. I play the piano and I compose. Sure, I travel a lot, but it’s no big deal. My sister and my friends certainly don’t think it’s a big deal.”
Emily lives with her parents, Brian and Andrea, and her two older siblings, 17-year-old Benjamin, and 13-year-old Lauren.
The Bears are a talented family: Andrea has performed at New American and Starlight theaters in Rockford, and has been featured singing with several orchestras including the Rockford Symphony Orchestra. All three children play the piano. Benjamin is a competitive rower and plays first-chair tenor saxophone in his high school’s jazz band. Lauren is the harpist for the Rockford Youth Symphony Orchestra, and is a competitive figure skater. Brian is plenty busy as an orthopedic surgeon. “There’s never been any sense of jealousy or competition in our family,” says Andrea. “Everyone is busy doing their own thing.”
Emily’s unique talents were apparent from the beginning.
Like she did with all of her children when they were young, Andrea sang lullabies to Emily to get her to sleep. “She sang back to me in perfect pitch – note on note,” Andrea recalls. “It was bizarre. I had never heard a baby sing before on pitch.”
One day, painters were working inside the Bear home when they heard someone playing the piano in another room. Much to their surprise, it was two-year-old Emily. “She was able to connect notes and play scales,” says Andrea. “She would experiment all over the keyboard.”
By the time she was three, Emily was composing music. Within a year, Andrea was teaching her to play pieces by ear. “Everything I taught her, she learned in a second,” Andrea says. “She memorized them and never forgot them.”
Emily’s grandmother, Marcelle Bear, also noticed her talents. A few weeks later, Emily’s other grandmother, trained pianist Merle Langs, heard Emily playing the piano while visiting Rockford from New York. Langs called The Juilliard School in New York to get a recommendation for a piano teacher in the Chicago area, for when Emily would be old enough to begin lessons. The school referred her to the Music Institute of Chicago’s Emilio del Rosario, a world-renowned classical pianist and teacher who specialized in teaching gifted children, before his death in 2010.
Emily began her piano studies with del Rosario at the age of four years, 10 months. “We’ve never had to force her to practice,” Andrea says. “She has always loved her music.” A few months later, Emily was asked to perform at a large fundraising gala for the Music Institute of Chicago, honoring world-renowned pianist Leon Fleischer.
Shortly afterwards, Emily, who was five at the time, was invited to perform at Ravinia Music Festival, in Highland Park, Ill. In her professional concert debut, Emily became the youngest performer to play at Ravinia’s Music Festival, where she played a 45-minute solo program mixing classical, jazz and her own compositions, including a song she wrote that week.
As a way to unwind before she performs, Emily has been known to do cartwheels before she goes out on stage. Remember, she’s 12. “She was literally bouncing off the walls with excitement before her performance,” Andrea says. “But once Emily gets onstage, she’s completely serene and focused.”
In 2008, Emily was six when she was invited to perform at the White House for The Easter Egg Roll breakfast for President and Mrs. George W. Bush. She performed a 30-minute solo concert, mixing jazz and original compositions, followed by two songs played especially for the President and First Lady. “That was pretty cool,” she says. “I was the first one there, so I got to go to the Green Room and the Blue Room.”
Later that year, she opened for the Ramsey Lewis Trio with a 30-minute set. At age six, Emily was a recipient of the 2008 ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Competition award for her original song Northern Lights. She was one of nine winners in the 18-year-old and younger category, a group of nearly 600 applicants. She was invited to be one of two pianists to perform at the awards ceremony in New York City and was the youngest winner in the competition’s history.
Her orchestral debut came at age seven, playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 23, K488, with two symphonies. By the time she was eight, she was playing concerts in Italy and China.
In 2010, Emily performed on Dancing with the Stars. To add to her growing collection of keepsakes, Emily brought home the tuxedo and hot pink socks with rhinestones that she wore on the show. “That was a really fun experience,” she says.
Two years later, Emily played for a sold-out crowd of 18,000 at the famous Hollywood Bowl. She played a medley of her own compositions as well as Miss Celie’s Blues, from the score of The Color Purple, with singers Gloria Estefan, Patti Austin, Siedah Garrett and a jazz orchestra. That summer, Emily was featured at the 45th Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland and the Festival Castell in Peralada, Spain.
That same year, Emily and family traveled to Geneva, Switzerland, where she performed in the Art on Ice show, in which world-class figure skating is choreographed to live musical performances. The list of past musical performers includes the likes of Donna Summer, Robin Gibb, Lang Lang and Seal. The performances on ice include Olympic medalists and figure skating world champions.
“It was so cool to play for live skaters – it was a totally different performing experience than I have ever had before,” Emily says. “One of my favorite parts was getting to ice skate with Olympic silver medalist Stefan Lambiel in the finale. It was really fun when he spun me around.”
Emily recently debuted eight new orchestral pieces at a concert in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and composed a score for a film that was recorded by a live orchestra in New York City this past summer.
Of course, with so many high-profile experiences come plenty of national and international media exposure. Emily’s been interviewed by the likes of Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric, and instantly became a favorite of actress Ellen DeGeneres. Emily has appeared and performed on The Ellen DeGeneres talk show six times.
She’s been covered by media outlets across the world, including those in Germany, Australia, Italy and China. Emily takes it all in stride. “It’s been fun,” she says. “I love to travel and learn about other cultures. I think it’s cool that music is so universal and can bring people together from all different backgrounds.”
Head of Her Class
Emily has many favorite composers, including George Gershwin and Debussy. Her jazz favorites are Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson and Quincy Jones.
And she works with some of the best teachers in the world. She’s currently studying classical piano with Chicago Symphony keyboardist Mary Sauer.
Emily also travels to New York, where she works with Veda Kaplinsky, head of the piano department at Juilliard, and does film scoring with Ron Sadoff, who started working with Emily three years ago at New York University.
“This isn’t the first time I’ve worked with a prodigy,” he says. “But it’s the first time I’ve worked with someone with Emily’s diversity – jazz, classical and film scoring. She has the ability to master them all. There are people who can do a couple of different things. Winston Marsalis, for example, is as accomplished in classical repertoire as he is in jazz. But Emily possesses an unbelievable sense of how to put music and images together. That’s something that can’t be taught.”
Emily plays all of her music from memory, even 45-page classical concertos. “I memorize the notes pretty quickly,” she says. “Then, it’s all about polishing the details.”
When asked how she creates such beautiful pieces, Emily’s answer is short and to the point. “I don’t know,” she says. “Everyone always asks me that. It just comes out.”
“She’s very malleable,” Sadoff says. “But there’s definitely an absolute vision that she locks onto. She’s very strong in her ideas. She’s never tentative, and with Emily, there’s always a natural flow of ideas.”
Someone else who has a sharp eye for talent is her manager, legendary producer Quincy Jones, known for his work with Michael Jackson and Frank Sinatra, and who has a countless number of film scores to his credit.
A mutual acquaintance told Jones about Emily. Two weeks later, Emily flew to his home in Los Angeles for an initial meeting. “They were kindred spirits from the beginning,” Andrea says. “They speak the same language.”
Jones ended up producing Emily’s most recent album, Diversity, which was recorded at Westlake Studios in Los Angeles – the same studio in which Jones recorded Bad with Jackson. The CD features all-original songs composed by Emily and performed with a jazz trio.
“It’s awesome working with him,” says Emily. “He’s completely down to earth. Every time I’m with him, I learn so much. He’s like an encyclopedia of American musical history. He’s taught me so much about music and about life. He always tells me that music is only as good as the person you are inside.”
For Jones, the feeling is mutual. “She’s the most delightful human being I’ve ever met in my life,” he writes on Emily’s official website. “And her music is the same way. I am at once astounded and inspired by the enormous talent that Emily embodies. With the ability to seamlessly move from classical to jazz and be-bop, she shows as much musical prowess as pianists/composers twice her age, and I’m thrilled to be working with her. She’s astounding, man….she’s astounding. She plays like she’s 40 years old. She is the complete 360-degree package, and there are no limits to the musical heights she can reach.”
Emily and her family are committed to using her talent to help others, so she’s developed a mission statement for her work. She only does projects that inspire, that she can learn and grow from, and that allow her to give back.
A portion of the proceeds from all CD sales are donated to charity foundations such as Susan G. Komen for the Cure, Ronald McDonald House Charities and Children’s hospitals in Los Angeles and Chicago. She has donated her talent fee back to the RSO Youth Symphony and her performances have helped the Rockford Public Schools purchase instruments for the music department. “I love giving back,” she says. “It makes me feel better that I can help people through my music.”
Last year, Emily performed with the RSO as part of its salute to the Big Bands. She played Duke Ellington’s Take the A Train and Satin Doll, among others. “Emily is one of those rare, one-in-a-million people,” says RSO Music Director Steven Larsen. “Someone like her doesn’t come around often. It’s difficult to overstate her talents and what she can do. She has an incredible curiosity about music, and she’s a wonderful person to work with. She’s a delight.”
A typical day for Emily is not so typical.
Wearing a pink headband, white top and black stretch pants, Emily is busy racing around her Rockford home on a recent cold and blustery day.
She’s sitting at her kitchen table, finishing up an early lunch of chicken noodle soup. Winston, the family’s miniature goldendoodle, is sitting on the floor, hoping something tasty will fall in his direction. “We call him Winnie,” Emily says.
Emily is in seventh grade and is being home-schooled this year. Given her demanding schedule, it’s easier for Emily to work on her studies from home, with help from a teacher who drops by a couple of times a week.
Her hectic schedule fluctuates between work and school. One week might be packed with schoolwork. The next week might lean more toward music. She’s constantly composing, writing and practicing from her upstairs studio. She regularly video chats with out-of-town teachers. She works on music for a commercial, then music for a film score. Within the past year, she’s started learning orchestration, but continues to work without a composing teacher. “I didn’t want to clip her wings,” Andrea says. “She’s so free and natural. Every song she writes has meaning. We never want her to lose the joy in creating.”
Offers to perform or compose continue to come Emily’s way. She was recently invited to perform at the Blue Note and Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, both in New York. She was asked to write the music for a Weight Watchers national marketing campaign. Her work is featured on six national commercials airing this winter. “That’s really awesome,” she says. Upcoming concerts include premieres of several new orchestral pieces that Emily is composing and Rhapsody in Blue with the Winnipeg Symphony in Canada.
During her down time, Emily loves to bake, work on crafts and have friends over. She enjoys the Disney Channel, History Channel, HGTV and Cake Boss.
Without question, having a child who’s in such great demand can be overwhelming. As Andrea likes to say: “There’s no rulebook for something like this.” But Andrea and Brian work hard to keep life as normal as possible for their three children.
“Everyone has special talents and gifts that make them sparkle or feel good about themselves,” says Andrea. “Whether it’s soccer or music, it’s a means to an end to building confidence and feeling good about yourself. Whatever my kids do, I want them to do it to the best that they can and have joy in it.”
As much as she’s accomplished in her young life, Emily, in some sense, is just getting started. She wants to be a film composer and looks up to well-known movie scorer John Williams.
“I don’t know what I’ll be doing when I get older, but it will definitely be in music,” she says. “My dream is to do film scoring and to have orchestras perform my music.”
Emily plans to revisit some of her favorite parts of the world when she can fully appreciate the experiences that surround her. “I love Vienna,” she says. “And Montreux, Switzerland, is so beautiful in the summer. I love the mountains and the swimming. This past summer was really fun. I got to perform in Japan and Korea. My favorite foods were Bi Bim Bop and sushi.”
Emily’s mentors marvel at her composure as well as her talent, and wonder what her future will bring. “She already knows this ability is part of her and is going to stay with her for her entire life,” says Sadoff. “It’s one long trajectory. She’ll do whatever she wants to do. But at this point, if you’ve heard her play these pieces, one thing is for sure: this is not the performance level and these are not the compositions of a 12-year-old child.”