A few years ago, Wael Farouk was playing piano in Upstate homes while his hosts passed a shoe box to help support the then-Converse College student.
On Saturday, the 31-year-old native of Egypt made his debut at New York's famed Carnegie Hall with many of his same supporters in the audience.
"...professionals (said) that there was no way on earth I could ever play the piano with my hands — let alone be any good or make a career out of it."
Farouk's path to one of the nation's most prestigious concert halls wasn't easy. First, it was his own hands holding him back. Farouk was too small to play the piano the way he dreamed, experts said.
Then, it was nature — Farouk's debut at Carnegie Hall was postponed when Hurricane Sandy battered the city just days before his scheduled performance late last year.
Farouk, who earned a master of music in piano performance from Converse in 2006 and keeps strong ties to the Spartanburg community, performed in honor of the 140th anniversary of Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff. It is music he was never expected to master.
Standing at about 5 feet tall, it should be "technically impossible" for Farouk to play Rachmaninoff's music. At least, that's what teachers in his native Egypt told him, according to Douglas Weeks, Babcock professor of piano at Converse College and the person who recruited Farouk to the school.
Farouk, who now teaches at the Chicago College of Performing Arts, said he began playing piano by accident. As a child, as is true today, Farouk is incapable of making a fist.
"Of course, I was not able to hold on to anything; I was dropping everything," he said. "Wisely, the physician advised my father to have me 'use my hands naturally,' so on my third birthday, my father got me a toy piano."
His father became his inspiration, Farouk said, because he believed in his abilities and taught him the value of hard work.
"This was always true, even though he kept hearing from professionals that there was no way on earth I could ever play the piano with my hands — let alone be any good or make a career out of it," Farouk said.
Within a few years, the young pianist fell in love with the music of Rachmaninoff, an early 20th century pianist noted for the wide range given to him by the large hands that came with his 6-feet, 6-inch frame.
"He began practicing 8 to 12 hours a day. At age 19, he could already play the complete Chopin Etudes," Weeks said, referring to three sets of solo studies for the piano by Frederic Chopin. "His determination is inspiring beyond words."
"Talent is only the beginning — on its own, it doesn't mean much at all."
Farouk said he overcame his physical shortcomings with faith and hard work.
"We can always overcome and achieve our goals," he said. "I am a great believer that God wouldn't put us through what we cannot handle. We always have to be true to ourselves, and we don't have the choice to give up. Nothing is handed to anyone for free. Talent is only the beginning — on its own, it doesn't mean much at all."
By the time Weeks met Farouk in 1999, when Weeks taught for four months at the Conservatory of Music in Cairo as part of a Teaching Fulbright, Farouk was performing Rachmaninoff pieces with the Cairo Symphony.
"It totally blew my mind when I met him. I thought there was no way this guy with the small size of his hands could play this piece," Weeks said. "When I heard him playing, it was a transformative moment — I had a feeling of floating down the hall as I walked toward the room where I knew I would see him playing the music I was hearing. It made me totally rethink what was technically possible regarding the size of one's hand. When you hear him play, he has a full-blown virtuoso technique.
"He knocked my socks off, and I recognized that he was a major talent," Weeks added.
Farouk first came to Converse to study with Weeks in the summer of 2001 and returned each of the following two summers. In 2003, he applied to Converse's graduate program and eventually moved in with Chris and Susan Bennett, a local Spartanburg family; joined a local church, Providence Presbyterian; and found a bride in fellow Converse graduate Amy Stahl.
"His standards are incredibly high, and his musical sensitivity is deeply moving. Anyone who attends one of his concerts finds it to be an experience they will always remember," Farouk's wife said. "This concert in Carnegie Hall is an opportunity for people to hear him play in one of the most prestigious musical venues in the world. It's a fitting environment for the level of music he will share."
Retired businessman E.T. McLean helped Farouk adjust to life in Spartanburg and connected him with people and performance opportunities in town. McLean said Farouk would perform alongside other Converse graduate students and often performed at Renato's Italian restaurant and other local venues.
"He is one of the most engaging young men that I've ever met," McLean said. "Wael is an extraordinary and unique person — perhaps the kindest human being I have met in my life. It is Wael's talent and his engaging and lovely nature that attracts all of the support he received. Nothing is too much for him to do if someone asks it of him. His story is so compelling that it naturally draws people in to become part of it."
Farouk has stayed close to the roots he laid in Spartanburg. He recorded his first album in the Daniel Recital Hall at Converse last fall and will perform at the school as part of the Zimmerli-Steinway Series, five concerts set to begin this fall.
His Carnegie Hall performance included an original composition written by Converse professor Scott Robbins, a 12-minute piece entitled I Colored a Wanted Music I Can Always Hear.
"I had a feeling of floating down the hall as I walked toward the room where I knew I would see him playing the music I was hearing..."
His "American family" as Farouk calls it, was on hand for his Carnegie Hall performance. The Bennetts and Robbins traveled to New York, as did several members of Providence Presbyterian Church and other supporters.
In fact, it's in part due to his American family that Farouk performed in the first place. Weeks said Carnegie Hall performers must cover the cost of renting the hall — about $4,000 — plus other expenses. About a quarter of those funds were raised at a concert at Converse last fall.
"The Spartanburg community truly attracted Wael, embraced him, supported him and propelled him toward Carnegie Hall," Weeks said.
This story was written by Drew Brooks of the Spartanburg Herald-Journal