As Jesse Hubbs sat down at the piano in the Long Beach Middle School auditorium, his mother held a thick atlas.
She had meant to hand him the heavy book before he sat down to play, in case the 11-year-old had trouble reaching the keys. But Hubbs, wearing a black button-up shirt tucked into black jeans, confidently ran through the complicated selection, "Musical Moment No. 4" by Sergei Rachmaninoff without skipping a beat.
Jesse performed the same piece, which requires the pianist to play at breakneck speed, in a video that was posted to Facebook earlier this month. It’s since been viewed more than 15,000 times.
“I was shocked,” Jesse said. “I was really excited about how many people had seen it.”
Last spring, as a fifth grader, Jesse qualified to participate in the New York State School Music Association all-state piano showcase. In his audition, he played another Rachmaninoff piece, and earned a perfect score of 100, according to Julia Lang-Shapiro, the director of media, visual and performing arts for the Long Beach school district.
The NYSSMA piano showcase is open to anyone who performs at a level six, the competition’s highest level, and receives a perfect score of 100 on a memorized piano solo, according to NYSSMA spokesman John Gallagher.
Of 110 applicants, Jesse was one of 13 musicians chosen to perform in Rochester on Nov. 30. He’ll also be the youngest, Gallagher said.
“I wasn’t surprised, but I was thrilled,” said Vanessa Krywe, Jesse’s former music teacher at West Elementary School.
Krywe has taught music for 22 years and said she’s never had a student who’s scored so high at such a young age in a NYSSMA evaluation.
From a young age, she said Jesse exhibited an early gift for music. He could memorize complex stretches much faster than his peers and was always hungry to learn more.
Jesse said he sees music as "a resource for me to express my feelings."
When he's happy, he says he lets his hands run rapidly up and down the keys, pushing himself to play as fast as he can. When he's upset, he said he prefers playing moody pieces, like Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata."
His mother, Toni Hubbs, said every night she sees her son practice for about an hour, silently striking the keys of their digital piano with his headphones plugged in. About once a week he works with a private instructor.
“We’ve never had to ask him to practice. He’s always been so eager to do more and try something more challenging,” Toni Hubbs said. “We’re just glad he’s doing something he absolutely loves.”