Portrait of the Musician as a Young Man

Pianist Isaac Harlan with drummer Cory Daniels

Pianist Isaac Harlan with drummer Cory Daniels

Students often ask me what it takes to enjoy a successful life in music. Well, talent is a must, of course. Beyond that, I think you have to be both 1. single-minded and 2. open-minded.

One young man who possesses all these qualities is Isaac Harlan. Right after graduating from Penn State University with a major in classical piano performance, Isaac won a national search and landed a full-time position as assistant musical director of Penn State’s Musical Theater program, one of the top-ranked such programs in the country.

I caught up with Isaac while he was on tour with the theater program, after a performance at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia. With drummer Cory Daniels, Isaac skillfully drove the hour-long show, which ranged from sensitive ballads like “It Might as Well be Spring” to high-powered ensemble dance numbers such as “Michael Jordan’s Ball” from The Full Monty.

A glance at Isaac’s music score revealed sketched-out charts but no detailed notation. “And here’s a 32-bar dance break,” he said, showing me a few bold scribbles on manuscript paper.

Isaac began piano lessons at the age of twelve at home in Mount Lebanon, PA. Twelve is fairly late for a professional artist to begin training, and even then, he was not an enthusiastic practitioner until high school, when he began studying at Duquesne University’s City Music Center, where he learned jazz theory and improvisation from pianist Ron Bickel.

Also crucial at this time was his grandmother’s influence. Grandma gave him a recording of jazz pianist Gene Harris. After one hearing, Isaac said, he became “obsessed.” Suddenly, he was determined to make music his life, and at 18, he enrolled in the University of Michigan’s undergraduate jazz piano program.

When family economics forced Isaac to switch from an out-of-state university to a public one without a jazz major, he immersed himself in classical music, and became grounded in piano technique under the guidance of his Penn State University teacher Stephen Smith. He also worked in the university music library, took organ lessons and harpsichord lessons, and became equally obsessed with the classical record collection of his father Christoph (a business executive and former professional classical guitarist.) Adept and curious about every era of music, Isaac played with the Baroque Ensemble but served as official accompanist of the University Choir and Gospel Choir as well.

When a notice appeared on the music school bulletin board asking for a pianist to play for a production of the PSU Thespians, Isaac showed up. Even though he had never played a show before (this one was Footloose,) his background in jazz improv and his newly solidified classical technique proved indispensable -– especially when the musical director of the show suddenly quit, and Isaac found himself in charge.

Soon he became deluged with requests from vocal students to accompany and coach them. At the end of his senior year, the assistant musical director position at the university became open, and, despite his youth, Isaac decided to apply. I can only imagine the search committee’s five-second conversation: “An application from Isaac Harlan? Chuck the others.”

What’s ahead for Isaac?

Ever open-minded, and not content to drum along in a full-time job with full benefits, Isaac wants to continue to develop as a musician -– either in a top collaborative piano masters degree program, or in the professional music world of the Big Apple. With his talent, single-minded focus and love for music, and his open-minded ability to see and enjoy opportunity, I have no doubt he’ll succeed.

There is one response to “Portrait of the Musician as a Young Man”

  1. Debbie,

    These are very generous words. I happen to know the young man in question rather well and have no doubt that he appreciates your support – as do his parents.

    Thank You!