Nick Poelwijk approaches the piano like a father embracing a child — tender, firm, delighted. He plays without halting, cascading from Chopin to Tchaikovsky to hymnody from Oregon Catholic Press.
Poelwijk, a sociable 19-year-old freshman at the University of Oregon, is being hailed as one of the best young pianists in the Northwest. He honed his craft for years during liturgies at St. Michael Church in Sandy and St. John Church in Welches.
Beginning at age 12, he played for three Masses per weekend and often accompanied his mother, Vivianne Couch Giusto, who is the cantor. "It meant a lot to me to spend that time with her, making music with her and us both being so involved in the church," Poelwijk recalls.
It was his mother who had him start playing at age 3. He struggled at first, but learned to love it, reveling in the blend of precision and passion.
Poelwijk played in the Sam Barlow High School jazz band and was all-round percussionist in the school symphony. But Saturday nights and Sundays were given over to sacred music.
"He just brought joy to all our Masses," says Heidi Duby, secretary at St. Michael. "It meant a lot to have him." Duby says Poelwijk spread glee not only with his playing, but with his personality. "He is always a joy to talk to, always so friendly," Duby says. During Christmas break, Poelwijk returned to St. Michael and St. John to play for Masses.
A year ago, Poelwijk won his age division in the Chopin Northwest Competition in Seattle. The founder of the competition held out opportunities for him to play in France and Australia in the future.
Somehow, despite the talent, Poelwijk is still something of a regular guy, maintaining friendships, enjoying sports. Even after all the experience, his heart races before he plays. It's a thrill for him. He spends hours per day at the piano, expressing himself almost as naturally through it as through speaking.
Poelwijk may transfer eventually to a conservatory, but is delighted with his experience so far in Eugene, studying with Claire Wachter at the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance. Wachter calls Poelwijk one of the school's most talented freshman pianists.
"What impresses me most about Nick is his love for the music," Wachter says. "Rarely have I had the privilege of teaching a pianist with such enthusiasm about the piano repertoire — he is so excited to learn the great masterpieces."
Wachter predicts that, in time, Poelwijk "will make a huge contribution to the world of music."
On the weekends, Poelwijk studies with his teacher from high school, concert pianist Mark Westcott.
Westcott says Poelwijk has talent, but also something else that great artists need: humility. "The name of the game in our business is knowing your weak spots and ceaselessly chipping away at them," Westcott explains. Such a task requires maturity and knowing oneself, says the teacher, who has just written a book called Playing with Love. The book says being an artist takes focusing on the love of the art instead of love of self. Poelwijk shows great promise in that task, Westcott insists.
The 19-year-old does not pray and meditate to prepare himself, but he does experience profound serenity while at the keyboard. It's not simple, but in a way his music and his faith are linked.
"Someone doesn't spend the amount of time I did in church services, let alone being a integral part of them, without taking some sort of deeper meaning from it," he says.
"I played for a number of different priests, and from each and every one I tried to gather the larger picture of what it meant to be a good Catholic — no, a good person. The messages and stories that they portrayed I try to keep with me every day, in the back of my head, helping to guide my decisions in ways that I could look back on and approve of."