Self-taught Syrian newcomer, 10, a piano star

In Syria, five-year-old Marcel Ward’s first love was a small plastic keyboard. Now his family, who fled the violence in Damascus and now live in Hamilton, Ont., calls him "Mini Mozart," and he’s got the skills to prove it.

Marcel Ward learned to play on a plastic keyboard as his family fled from Damascus

Marcel Ward started playing piano in Syria when he was five. Now, at 10, he's sharpening his skills with the goal of passing an exam at the the Royal Conservatory of Music. (Matt Llewellyn/CBC)

In Syria, five-year-old Marcel Ward's first love was a small plastic keyboard.

Now his family, who fled the violence in Damascus, calls him "Mini Mozart." And he's got the skills to prove it.

Mini Mozart

6 years ago
Duration 2:13
Marcel Ward taught himself how to play by simply listening to music and figuring out how to replicate it.

Eahem Ward said she never imagined that small red keyboard would change her son's life, but it was one of the few possessions they took with them when they left Syria in 2012. Marcel kept playing it throughout his family's journey to Dubai, Lebanon, the U.S. and finally, Hamilton, Ont.

Eahem said Marcel taught himself how to play by simply listening to music and figuring out how to replicate it. Sometimes it's hard to get her son's fingers off the keys, she said.

"It's really like the piano is part of Marcel," she told CBC News.

Marcel's 12-year-old brother, Eilia, said it goes even further than that.

"He's, like, inside the piano," he said. "When I see him playing I think It's like he's thinking about nothing."

Marcel Ward's family fled Syria in 2012, stopping in several other places before settling in Hamilton. (Submitted by Ward family)

Just a few months after Marcel began discovering the beauty of music, the sounds of war arrived at his family's door. The Wards fled Damascus for Dubai and would spend the next few years moving the family, and that little keyboard, around. 

Manar Ward, Marcel's father, described the next few years as turbulent.

"We moved after the war started in Syria," he said.

"We settled in Dubai and we tried to live there because all my family got attacked from so many rebels. My sister got shot there. Then we settled in Dubai for the (next) three years." 

It was during those years in the United Arab Emirates that Marcel's parents really noticed his gift. "I remember the first time he played some pieces and we showed it to some experts in piano. They were shocked," Ward said.

"They said we need two years of training to play that. It was so hard."

But not for Marcel.

"Difficult? No. Nothing is difficult," Marcel said. "Nothing is impossible."

At 10, Marcel now has a proper piano and is sharpening his skills ahead of an upcoming level four international piano exam that will be administered by the Royal Conservatory of Music this August.

What does he enjoy most about playing?

"I like how it sounds," he said. "It's beautiful. It's not so loud and noisy."

'Real talent'

Cheryl Adams, a Hamilton piano teacher who has been teaching musicians for 15 years, is working with Marcel ahead of his Royal Conservatory exam.

Marcel Ward taught himself to play piano on this beginner's keyboard. (Matt Llewellyn/CBC)
Adams said her goal is to help round out Marcel's musical education and help him with reading music.

"He has a real talent for picking things up and producing it," she said. 

"I feel like he could be a Chopin," Adams said, referring to the great Polish composer Frédéric Chopin.

"He loves minor sounds, and I think that's a little unique for someone this young."

Elaine Rusk, vice president of the Royal Conservatory's certificate program, is reluctant to use words like "prodigy," but admits Marcel does have measurable talent and is younger than most level four students.

"The fact that he's here in this country, and that music is such a great part of his life — which has not been a straightforward path so far — I think it's wonderful that he has this gift to ground him and to share with his family," Rusk said. 

'A unique approach'

Marcel is now taking classes with a piano teacher after years of figuring out music on his own. (Matt Llewellyn/CBC)
The Wards admit it's been a challenge to get Marcel to learn music the formal way.

"The first time he refused," Eahem Ward said.

"He only likes to listen and play. He refused to learn any notes."

However, she said the rest of the Ward family doesn't have any training or ability and they recognize the importance of getting Marcel some coaching.

Marcel says he learns music by figuring out what notes his right hand needs to play. Then he moves on to the left. Slowly then, he'll begin playing with both hands.

"When I make it better, I make it the right speed," he said.

In videos filmed by his father, Marcel beams as his fingers fly over the keys. And he's got some lofty ideas about where piano might take him.

"I want to be famous and go on America's Got Talent and stuff," he said.

His father, however, said he doesn't mind whether his son ever becomes a professional musician. Instead, he said, he'd like Marcel to keep playing and to add to the music in the world. 

The Ward family at one of Marcel's performances. (Submitted by Ward family)