An up-and-coming pianist shares his love of music with children

Jan Lisiecki, age 22, has already performed at Carnegie Hall and recorded several albums. He’s also made humanitarian work a priority, spending time with young Syrian refugees and other children.

Courtesy of Holger Hage/Deutsche Grammophon
Jan Lisiecki has recorded albums featuring Chopin, Mozart, and Schumann. He’s also a UNICEF Canada ambassador.

Jan Lisiecki has fit a lot into his young life. At 22, he’s a world-renowned classical pianist – and he’s made it a priority to blend his artistry with humanitarian work, especially involving children.

Hailing from Calgary, Alberta, Mr. Lisiecki has worked with UNICEF for almost a decade and has been a UNICEF Canada ambassador since 2012. He raises funds through charity recitals, holding several a year, most of which aren’t listed on his website. He’s also visited with and performed for children in impoverished communities in Guatemala and Lebanon, as well as his native Canada.

“Children are all the same: They all have the same basic needs,” he says. “You can only do so much. You cannot change their circumstances. But I hope to give them some feeling of still being kids.”

Lisiecki, the son of Polish immigrants, started performing professionally at age 9. He has been featured in several short documentaries, including “The Reluctant Prodigy” from the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. Among other top venues, he has performed at Carnegie Hall in New York, and he’s recorded albums featuring works by Chopin, Mozart, and Schumann.

Audiences tend to be captivated by his performances. When onstage and in concert attire, he seems far more grown up than his age would suggest. But in street clothes, he looks like any other 20-something. And he’s strikingly modest and down to earth.

Indeed, Lisiecki is modest when asked about his motivations for getting involved with humanitarian work, saying he was simply led in that direction. But he also emphasizes that such work has always played an important role in his life.

As a child, he was a popular guest at local charity events in his hometown of Calgary, where he was frequently asked to perform. Eventually this led him to UNICEF, for which he became a national youth representative in 2008, before his designation as an ambassador four years later.

Lisiecki has partnered with other humanitarian groups as well, including the David Foster Foundation and Make-A-Wish Foundation.

“Jan is a very talented, gifted musician with an amazing heart, helping to make a difference in children’s lives,” says Frances Graham, a development manager at UNICEF Canada, in an email interview. “He has a tremendous awareness of global issues and children’s rights and he consistently acts to pass this awareness and knowledge on to others.”

In 2011, Lisiecki was scheduled to perform three solo recitals in Japan. His visit, however, coincided with the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami that devastated Fukushima prefecture. So he turned his recitals into benefit concerts, donating the proceeds to UNICEF’s relief efforts.

Lisiecki says he particularly enjoys performing in lesser-known locations, bringing his music to people who don’t usually have access to it. For example, in March 2016 he traveled to La Ronge, a remote First Nation community in Saskatchewan. During the visit, which was supported by the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra and Cameco, a Canadian mining company, he met with students and also performed for the larger community.

In terms of special trips, perhaps his most noteworthy one was to a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon in 2014. He was already scheduled to perform in Lebanon’s capital, Beirut, and the nearby refugee crisis moved him to do a second performance afterward, organized by UNICEF.

So Lisiecki visited a refugee camp near the city of Zahlé, which was about a two-hour drive away in the Bekaa Valley. The trip involved passing through numerous security checkpoints. “We could feel we were getting very close to Syria,” he notes.

Once there, he says, he was given a tour of the community and could see UNICEF’s relief work up close. He visited with families and performed for schoolchildren. And the students shared and performed songs they had written.

“It teaches you to appreciate everything you have. It gives you perspective and brings you back to the core of who you are,” says Lisiecki, reflecting on his humanitarian work.

He acknowledges it can sometimes be difficult balancing this work with his regular tour schedule. His reputation as a performer is growing and his name is spreading rapidly, so he is in increasingly high demand.

“But you can always mix [special events] in,” he says. “There is always something on my calendar.”

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