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Old keys, old soul: Young ragtime piano player seeks world champ title

Published: Friday, May 23, 2014 3:05 p.m. CDT • Updated: Sunday, May 25, 2014 12:33 a.m. CDT
(Sarah Nader-
Daniel Souvigny, 13, practices a song on the piano at his Hampshire home. This weekend, Souvigny is competing in the World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Contest and Festival, where ragtime and honky-tonk piano players compete from around the world. Souvigny practices two hours a day and has been playing since the age of five.
(Sarah Nader-
Daniel Souvigny plays on 1912 Upright Bush & Gerts piano at his Hampshire home.
(Sarah Nader-
Daniel Souvigny is competing in the World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Contest and Festival, where ragtime and honky-tonk piano players compete from around the world. Souvigny practices two hours a day and has been playing since the age of 5.

It’s the sound. It bursts from a 1912 Upright Bush & Gerts piano, the actual banging on the keys a part of its lively melody.

That sound, resurrecting the spirit of the early 20th century, isn’t floating from the dance floor of a saloon or a local honky-tonk. The fingers flying over the ivories are much smaller than you think. They’re that of a young boy, with an old soul, going for broke on those keys from his living room on a Sunday afternoon. That sound is ragtime.

By definition, ragtime is a type of lively music with strong syncopation in the melody and a regularly accented accompaniment in stride piano style. To Daniel Souvigny, it’s more.

“It’s a whopper of a hobby, but I can’t even call it a hobby, it’s so much more. It’s my future,” Souvigny said.

While typical 13-year-olds are hanging out with friends or playing video games, Souvigny can be found jamming with pianists in the practice rooms of ragtime festivals and competitions.

The pianists are anywhere from 10 to 60 years his senior. They’re his confidantes, his mentors, his friends.

“I was always drawn to the piano,” Souvigny said. “When I was 5, I got a CD of Jo Ann Castle. She played so clean and so fast. I played a ragtime song and that was it. I love to play fast.”

Coming off a win at the Illinois State Junior Talent Competition in Springfield earlier this year, Souvigny is gearing up for The World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing contest this weekend in Peoria, where he will participate in the 17-and-under competition.

Souvigny took the first-place spot in 2012 but was unable to defend his title in 2013, finishing in second place.

“I was ungratefully dethroned last year by a 16-year-old,” he said.

Souvigny’s mother, Vicki Bersch, said Daniel was influenced early on by his father, Steve Souvigny. The family always had a piano in the house, and Steve would play jazz and ragtime tunes for a very special audience.

“Steve would play, and Daniel would just sit and watch and listen from his high chair,” Bersch said. “Even at 3 and 4 years old, Daniel couldn’t walk through the room without touching the piano or banging on a few keys.”

Daniel began taking formal lessons at 5 years old, and now travels to the North Shore twice a week from his home in Hampshire for ongoing lessons. He has competed in competitions and performed at festivals in multiple states. He also performs at local retirement communities.

“I wanted him to get experience performing, and we found out pretty fast that he likes an audience,” Bersch said. “The residents in the retirement communities really enjoy it because it reminds them of a time they’re familiar with and takes them back to music from their era.”

As for this weekend’s contest, Souvigny has some new tricks up his sleeve, as well as a hearty dose of confidence, but admits the competition has become stiffer as he rises to the top of the contender list.

“When I first started competing, it was I played simply and it was fun. I was nice and relaxed. But now that I’m up in the competition, it’s more stressful,” Souvigny said.

Souvigny will perform two pieces at the competition, “King Chanticleer” and “Tiger Rag,” against a laundry list of requirements a piece. He also has enlisted the help of a master tailor to construct his stage costume, complete with a tiger-print vest, wing tips and an old-time fedora.

Souvigny also will compete for the first time in The New Rag Contest, in which contestants are challenged with composing their own ragtime pieces. Souvigny has crafted his own piece, “The Not So Average Rag.”

Souvigny said he’s more excited than anything to go to the competition because he loves to play with the other pianists during the downtime, and he loves to listen to the pianists he looks up to, such as 2013’s The New Rag Contest winner Adam Swanson.

While piano is Souvigny’s major focus, he also plays guitar, drums and violin and has recently taken up harmonica. Souvigny also hasn’t limited himself to one genre, and said he is a big fan of nearly all music.

“No opera and no disco. I don’t like those,” he said.

Souvigny is home-schooled, allowing for flexibility in his musical ventures, which often can be demanding.

“I get to meet amazing musicians and travel. I’m always counting down the days to the next festival or competition,” he said.

Souvigny said he would like to become a concert pianist and plans to always have a life in music.

“I’m not good at art, and I’m not the sporty type. I like music. It’s my life. It’s the sound.”

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