River of Dreams

Credit: Daniel Dubois

By Michael Pollack, Class of 2016

I had a recurring dream when I was a child.

I would sit at my piano, close my eyes, and my living room would transform into a stadium or concert hall. One of my favorite artists would be onstage, and he would announce my name to the audience as I began the piano introduction. After a short improvisational opening, I would progress into a recognizable melody and the crowd would erupt.

Moments later my idol, my inspiration, would begin to sing. The same vocals I had heard on my iPod many times before would complement my piano playing. I would make eye contact with him, and the dynamics of the music and vocals would evolve simultaneously, as if we had rehearsed for years. We would smile as he experimented with new vocal runs and refreshing falsettos and I filled each empty space with an original riff.

As the song reached its end, he would signal to me to bring down the piano as he began a call-and-response finish. After a teasing break in the music, I would strike the closing chord as he brought everything together with an overwhelming note at the top of his range. The crowd would stand up and applaud as my idol and I would share a short moment onstage.

Seems pretty unlikely, I’ll admit.

I grew up on Long Island and started my studies at Vanderbilt as a freshman last August. A few months later, when the Vanderbilt Programming Board announced Billy Joel was coming in late January for a performance and question–answer session with students, I knew I had picked the right school.

I have played Joel’s music ever since I started playing piano, and it had been my dream to share the stage with him. I spent part of my youth performing with a Billy Joel cover band and with Richie Cannata, his longtime saxophonist. It seemed as if the stars had aligned and I would finally get my best opportunity to achieve the dream I’d long had.

My Vanderbilt roommate, Adam Luftig, and I decided we would show up early the day of the show to get the best seats—not the closest ones, but the seats that were perfectly in his field of view. Joining us were a few friends, who emphatically pointed at me as Joel gazed around the room looking for a question. After a handful of questions, he picked me.

“My favorite song of yours is ‘New York State of Mind,’” I said. “I’ve been very fortunate. I was able to play it with Richie Cannata many times in New York City, and I was wondering if I could play it with you.”

To be completely candid, I was just relieved to get the words out without completely breaking down. I really had not thought about how he would respond to my question. He had let audience members accompany him in the past, so why not again?

Billy took a moment and then rather reluctantly said, “OK.” It was good enough for me.

During the next month approximately 100,000 people watched Billy Joel and me share the stage in a video online. Then, on an ordinary Tuesday, that number climbed exponentially.

What followed was a performance no different from the one I had imagined years earlier while sitting in my living room. If a video of my performance with Billy didn’t exist, I would have had a hard time remembering all the details. I was lost onstage—lost in a moment that was so much bigger than anything I could ever fathom.

What I didn’t realize then was that a few more people than the 1,000 audience members would see the performance I had dreamt about.

During the next month approximately 100,000 people watched Billy and me share the stage in a video online. Then, on an ordinary Tuesday, that number climbed exponentially.

Twenty-four hours later I found myself in New York City to appear on NBC’s Today show, Good Day New York, and the Morning Mash Up on Sirius XM Radio. I was informed that more than 20 million people had viewed the video in its many forms.

A week later I was in Los Angeles on The Jeff Probst Show performing an original song. And throughout the madness, Billy himself found the time to email me and thank me for my performance that evening. I will be eternally grateful for the opportunity he gave me that night, and it will never truly sink in.

Three months after that night at Langford Auditorium, I searched for “Billy Joel” on YouTube. A laundry list of videos of songs that had inspired me throughout my childhood popped up: “Piano Man,” “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” “Vienna.” He had pages of live performances, interviews and music videos.

But above them all, at the very top of the page, was a video of a Long Island boy accompanying the Piano Man.

Michael Pollack is a rising sophomore in the College of Arts and Science.

See an interview with Pollack about the experience.

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  • Frankenmary Collins

    Congratulations! We all applaud your moxie, not to mention your musical chops! From one Long Island boy (Manhasset) and Vandy grad to another Long Island boy and a future grad: well done!!!