Ethan Walmark, I am always going to be able to say, “I knew you when.”
Because judging by the past weekend, this 6-year-old, piano-playing phenom is destined to be a star.
Ethan is the son of my friends, Allison and Michael Walmark, in Westport. Like a lot of other 6-year-olds, he has a ton of energy, an irrepressible laugh and a beautiful smile, and he loves kindergarten. He developed an amazing musical ability and interest very early on—at only 12 months, he could plink “Mary Had A Little Lamb” on the piano. By age four, Ethan had developed a remarkable talent for listening to a song only a handful of times and being able to play it on the piano almost perfectly right away. His musical gift is awe-inspiring to witness and it’s clear he absolutely loves to be at a piano.
The other thing that makes this story even more incredible is that .
In some ways that has been at the heart of why the whole world sat up to take notice of Ethan’s incredible gifts, just this past weekend.
Allison takes frequent videos of Ethan playing piano. On Ethan’s own YouTube channel, you can watch him play “Clocks” by Coldplay, Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed” and duet with his 5 year old sister, Eliza on James Taylor’s “Mockingbird.” He can play the whole Beatle catalog too.
As she’s done many times, Allison posted another video of Ethan to Facebook last Thursday, April 26. This one was of Ethan and his music therapist performing “Piano Man.” Watching Ethan, it’s impossible not to get pulled in by his charismatic enthusiasm that’s at turns both little-boy and commanding musician. His performance is fun and masterful, as he plays and sings in a virtuoso show. He cries out, “Sing it now!” to his teacher, and it’s clear Ethan is living and breathing his “Piano Man” moment.
That video became larger than life—or at least larger than Allison’s Facebook page. More than 695,000 viewers found it similarly hypnotizing as of Monday, because that’s how many people have watched Ethan’s “Piano Man” performance on YouTube since Allison uploaded it Thursday.
Ethan certainly went viral—the video spread from Facebook to Google+ to Reddit.com, and from there it exploded. It was picked up by Huffington Post, Gawker.com, AOL, CNN’s Headline News, msn.com, Glenn Beck’s TheBlaze.com, The Washington Post, and media sites in places as varied and far away as Israel, Nigeria, New Zealand, the UK and South Africa.
“It was out of control in 24 hours,” Allison said. “I got three phone calls today telling me that they played Ethan’s video on satellite radio.” Of course, now the morning talk shows have come calling, wanting to book Ethan and his parents as guests.
Most amazing of all, Billy Joel himself raved about Ethan performing his signature song. “I think I like his intro better than mine. And this kid plays with a lot more energy than me. Maybe he could teach me a few things.”
It’s been a heady experience for the whole Walmark family. “That was pretty phenomenal to hear from Billy Joel. The power of social media is unbelievable.”
In talking with Allison about the ripple effect this one four-minute video has had, you start to peel back the layers of how she and Michael nurture and protect their son, of how they are taking in the reaction the world is having to Ethan’s amazing ability, and of how their son is making his mark on the world.
The autism factor in all of this is a complicated one, because in some ways it’s what makes people watch Ethan with even more wonder and hopefully learn how to be better people as a result; but in other ways, autism is what sets Ethan apart.
“I have finally come to the place of, this is how my child is, this is how he reaches the world, this is how he moves people," Allison said. "He’s going to have limitations in his life, unless there’s a magic pill that makes him completely sociable and able to communicate with other people. But when my son is at that piano, there is no child in this world that is happier to be who he is than my son.”
Because autism limits Ethan’s ability to communicate with others, his passion for music is something that helps him figure out how to relate with the world in a way that works for him. “When he’s with his family there’s a certain connection,” Allison explained. “He’s a typical kid around his sister, he’s a typical kid when he’s just with his parents. But he’s not that way with other people. But when he’s at the piano he’s that typical kid who can communicate with anyone through his music.”
In turn, if the music and videos of Ethan help the world learn to relate to him and appreciate him for all the many facets of the individual he is, Allison will be thankful.
“I think a lot of people’s exposure of autism has come strictly from [the movie] ‘Rainman,’ they think it’s counting toothpicks and hitting yourself in the head," she said. "It’s called a spectrum for a reason—there are high-functioning kids with autism, there are low-functioning kids with autism, there are kids with Asperger’s who can speak and hold jobs and carry on a conversation, and there are kids that are literally banging their heads against the wall. You can say a child is ‘autistic,’ but that has so many connotations. Not every kid with autism has a musical ability like my kid. That’s just his thing.”
Allison and I have had many conversations about wanting to change the world in that way—of encouraging people to be more accepting of differences and the range of challenges that everyone has. of my hope that people can of individuals with differences—particularly autism—and that there is no one true ‘stereotype.’
I showed my 5-year-old daughter Ethan’s “Piano Man” video, and with the judgment-free wisdom of a child, she said, “He’s so lucky, he’s famous and on YouTube!” Hopefully, there is something in this experience that continues to encourage acceptance of a person for his individual abilities, rather than for his label or diagnosis.
Allison knows that her videos of Ethan—and Ethan himself—will only help make that more of a possibility too. “If I can change one bully’s mind, or convince one kid not to bully, or make him understand, then my child is making a difference.”
Allison and Michael are also passionate about trying to raise money for autism awareness, research and family support. “Last year we raised $166,160 for Autism Speaks. We were the number one team in Westchester/Fairfield County.” They have already started raising money again this year, and hope to surpass last year’s tally. Their fundraising page, under the name “The E-TEAM,” has seen more action since the video debuted, and of course they hope people everywhere will be inspired to donate once they see Ethan.
That’s Ethan, inspiring people in so many ways. I’m honored to say, “I knew him when.”