Teddy Otieno: Kenyan pianist makes the finale in UK competition TV show

Kenyan pianist Teddy Otieno who is studying at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire of Music.

Photo credit: Pool

A self-taught Kenyan classical pianist has impressed a panel of top international musicians and captured the imagination of TV viewers in the UK, thanks to his mastery of the instrument.

Twenty-two-year-old Teddy Otieno was last Sunday picked as a finalist in the second episode of the current series of The Piano, a competition to unearth the UK’s most exciting amateur pianists on the Channel 4 television network. Teddy was overcome with emotion as the judges, world-renowned Chinese virtuoso pianist Lang Lang, and UK singer-songwriter Mika, made the announcement.

He becomes the second pianist picked during the current season of the show to play at a specially staged concert during the season finale. “I am really touched by his determination and love for the piano,” declared Lang. “I think music really changed his life,” added Mika. “It is undeniable, it is unstoppable and we are just a part of his path.”

It has been a whirlwind for the boy who grew up in the tough neighbourhood of Lucky Summer, Nairobi and played the piano for the very first time at the age of 16. “I am still trying to process what just took place,” he told the BDLife on phone from Birmingham, UK, earlier this week. “I didn’t expect things to go as well as they did when I entered the competition. I now feel like I deserve it and I am really worth it. My confidence is high.”

During the show, amateur musicians are invited to publicly perform on street pianos in the concourses of major UK railway stations. The two judges watch the performances from a room nearby and then pick one performer from each station to play during the final episode.

Teddy was selected from last weekend’s episode to play at a unique one-night-only concert at the Aviva Studios, Manchester. “I never imagined I would scale such heights so soon. Maybe in 10 to 15 years, not this soon,” he says.

While attending St Clare Primary School and Our Lady of Fatima, Kariobangi, Teddy was fascinated with the piano but he had never seen the real instrument. So, he would spend hours in a cyber cafe watching videos of maestros like Lang Lang on YouTube while drawing the black and white keys on a cardboard to create an imaginary piano. “People would be like “what is he doing” but I was determined that I would one day sit infront of a keyboard,” he recalls.

When he joined Ghetto Classics, the music training programme for underprivileged children, in Korogocho, he started with the tuba, because no one else wanted to play the brass instrument. It was only after two years that his long-cherished dream turned into reality.

“When I touched the keyboard for the first time it was like a child who has been imagining a Ferrari and one day sees the car in real life. I was jumping and shouting with excitement. I could not wait for the end of school classes every day so that I could rush and play the instrument. I was so motivated to keep learning the next passagework during my practice sessions,” he recalls.

After completing high school, Teddy finally had ample time to practice his skills but that opportunity was cut short by the pandemic. Undeterred, he would persuade the gatekeeper at the St John’s Community Centre, Korogocho, to allow him entry into the piano room to practice for a few hours every day even though the facility was officially shut.

Kenyan pianist Teddy Otieno with his tutor Katherine Lam of the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire of Music.

Photo credit: Pool

UK concert pianist Cordelia Williams arrived for a six-month teaching and performing stint in Nairobi in January 2021, and was introduced to 19-year-old Otieno. As Cordelia later blogged: “These were his first ever regular piano lesson, but I immediately noticed his natural musical instinct and passion, and astounding focus and determination to learn.”

She encouraged him to apply for music training opportunities and as luck would have it, Teddy was accepted on a scholarship to study piano performance at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire in the UK.

When he joined in September 2022, he was astounded to find a class whose level of piano playing was so high which meant putting in extra effort to close the gap between him and the other students. Incidentally, his twin brother Lameck Ochieng, is studying viola and architecture at Bard University in the US.

Teddy’s tutor at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, Katherine Lam, persuaded him to try his luck on The Piano. “I applied at the last minute and that is how I got a chance to play at a railway station in Cardiff, Wales.”

He selected the first movement of Suite Bergamasque by French composer Claude Debussy regarded as one of the most famous classical pieces of all time. It earned him the plaudits of his idol, Lang Lang and a place in the finale of the show.

Teddy’s celebrations are on the back burner for now as he prepares for his second-year examinations due next week.

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