When 5-year-old Jonathan Keith came home from his first day of kindergarten, his mother asked him what his favorite part of school had been.
“Nap time,” he responded.
Melanie Keith asked him why nap time was so enjoyable, and the blue-eyed child told her it was because he liked the music his teacher played. What happened next was unexpected and spectacular.
“He went to the piano and played a Haydn concerto with both hands,” said Melanie, who still reminisces on the experience with a hint of wonder in her voice, even though she’s seen her son’s natural skill blossom and mature over the last 18 years.
Keith is currently a junior at BYU and majors, of course, in music, with an emphasis in piano performance. Although his natural musical ability is indisputable, Keith has excelled in music largely because of his uncommon work ethic and passion for the art. However, a tragic accident in 2007 nearly ended his life and career.
“I’ve never had to ask him to practice,” his mother said. “In fact, we’d have to beg him for a break sometimes. We’d say, ‘Just give us a half hour during dinner and then you can practice the rest of the night.’”
Irene Peery-Fox, a member of the BYU piano faculty and Keith’s teacher since he was 9, said Keith understands the value of hard work when it comes to reaching his goals.
“Jonathan knows what it means to excel in classical piano, regardless of the depth of the given gift,” she said in an email. “He often spends six to eight hours practicing, going over the same difficult spots many times in order to completely master them. He has a tremendous work ethic and willingness to do as much as needed in order to accomplish his goals of perfection.”
One of the most amazing aspects of Keith’s natural talent is his aural skills. By the time he was finishing elementary school he had learned how to play Beethoven’s “Tempest Sonata” and Chopin’s “Nocturne in C# Minor,” among other classics, without learning how to read a single note.
“I played Kabalezsky’s “Piano Concerto in D” with the American Fork Symphony when I was 10,” Keith said. “But I never even looked at the music.”
With such amazing inherent skill, Keith could easily have breezed through recitals and competitions without learning to read music. But even as a young man, he understood he’d be better off in the long run if he worked hard and developed the skill.
It’s been more than 10 years since he started sight reading music. Even though he can read practically anything placed in front of him, Keith said he wishes he would’ve started earlier.
“I can’t sit down and sight read as well as other people can,” he said. “So when I’m teaching some of my students, I stress sight reading a lot. Some of them are only five or six and can sight read better than I could when I was 12.”
As a part-time teacher, Keith wishes to instill in his students his same enthusiasm for hard work and practice. Throughout his high school career, Keith practiced hours a day, often to the dismay of his closest friends.
Even though his demanding practice schedule kept him busy, Keith found time to create strong relationships with his closest friends, often through campouts or weekend road trips.
One calamitous trip, in particular, had a lasting effect on Keith, and put his perseverance and passion for music to the test.
On the way to Washington in the summer of 2007, Keith was involved in a tragic car accident that left him in the intensive care unit in Jerome, Idaho, for two days. In addition to major head and knee injuries, Keith broke every bone in his right hand, shattered his wrist and severed the tendons of his pinky, ring and middle fingers — a virtual death sentence for an aspiring pianist. Most worrisome to the doctors was the fact that blood was rushing to his bruised lungs. They were unsure if he would survive, much less be able to play the piano again.
“My whole family drove up to see me because the doctors told my dad they didn’t expect me to make it,” Keith said. “They had seen similar cases where blood was getting into the lungs and it usually wasn’t good.”
After what he considers to be a miraculous recovery, Keith returned home after five days. A couple of months after the accident, Keith began his slow rehabilitation, painfully poking out melodies with his right index finger. He said the process was slow and tedious, but in less than a year, he was playing comfortably again.
Keith’s miraculous recovery allowed him to serve as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Oakland, Calif. It wasn’t long before his talent was recognized and put to use for missionary purposes.
“My first mission president noticed I played the piano and gave me lots of opportunities to play,” Keith said. “I played a fireside or something almost every month of my mission.”
As a district leader, Keith encouraged his district to invite investigators to a musical fireside about Joseph Smith and the restoration of the gospel. He composed all of the music and arranged a few hymns during the preparation days before the event. It was supposed to be a small affair with a handful of missionaries and investigators, but after the mission president’s wife found out, the idea became something more grand than Keith ever expected.
“She wanted to do a mission-wide fireside, so I composed 11 pieces and arrangements that were played by the Temple Hill Orchestra in Oakland,” Keith said. “About 650 people came and a lot of them were investigators. A lot of people wrote the mission president and said it had a big impact on them. It was probably a coincidence, but we had a lot of baptisms in our mission the following months.”
After his mission, Keith returned to BYU. Last summer he was able to go to a music academy in Prague for a month. While there, he studied with teachers from the Manhattan School of Music and Prague Conservatory, among others.
Keith plans to spend the next year preparing to apply to graduate school. Julliard, Peabody, Manhattan School of Music and Michigan University are among his top choices.
Keith’s senior recital is March 30 at 9:30 p.m. in the Madsen Recital Hall of the HFAC. His CD, “Heaven’s View,” is available now on iTunes.