Piano Man on a Mission

Kristopher Hull is zeal on wheels.

The family was not especially musical, Dawn recalls, though they listened to some classical at home. "I happen to be more or less tone deaf," she says. "And going back a number of generations, I've never heard of anyone in my family playing anything."

Television was nonexistent in their village in Kenya, and still rare, she says, in Greece, where they moved when Kris was about age seven. The brothers mostly entertained themselves outdoors.

"We were just always looking for mischief," Troy says. "We'd get home from school and ride our bikes around, down to the park, and explore abandoned buildings. We had a great time in Greece."

Hull's forays on Lincoln Road didn't last long.
Victor Staaffe
Hull's forays on Lincoln Road didn't last long.
Hull made fast friends with Jesse Jackson at Amendment XXI.
Victor Staaffe
Hull made fast friends with Jesse Jackson at Amendment XXI.

During the family's time there, Dawn enrolled Ryan in piano lessons. Kris, meanwhile, was signed up to learn guitar, a project that was short-lived, Dawn says, for he "absolutely loathed" the lessons.

But Kris had already demonstrated serious intellectual curiosity, manual dexterity, and an ability to focus deeply. After receiving a how-to book on juggling one Christmas, he spent a year fixated on the craft, eventually able to keep five items aloft at once. His mother also remembers him enjoying jigsaw puzzles.

Troy remembers Kris hanging around Ryan's piano lessons. "He didn't want to have lessons, but he wanted to play the piano as well as Ryan or better, so he did," he says. "Everything that we did was competitive and focused. Kris has always been pretty intense."

One day, Dawn heard a practiced version of a Scott Joplin ragtime coming from the piano room. "I said, 'Who's that? Is that Ryan?'" she recalls. "And I went in and it was Kris. I couldn't believe it!"

"I'm not sure how he came up with the ragtime or where he found it," says Troy.

But that was just a party trick, it seemed, and as soon as Kris had picked it up, he put it aside. When Kris was 14 years old, his family was set to move to Indonesia. He was given a choice: go with them or return to the States for boarding school. He chose the latter, and enrolled at the prestigious Deerfield Academy, in western Massachusetts.

In an attempt to embrace the new culture head-on, he tried out for junior varsity football. "He decided he wanted to become a real American," Dawn says. "And I think it lasted about three weeks, because in some game or another, he ran the ball towards the wrong goal post, and that was the end of that!"

Remembering his leisurely childhood bike rides, Kris turned to cycling, taking it on with typical intensity. "Off the bat, he was doing 60-mile rides," Troy says. "That was the usual for him."

After graduating, Hull went to Rice University in Houston on a full scholarship to study architecture (he was also a preternaturally gifted draftsman). Still, though, he planned to become a professional cyclist, until those dreams were cut short when he contracted Lyme disease. Usually passed through tick bites, the chronic illness causes a number of recurring physical symptoms, including arthritis. For Hull, it was nearly debilitating. Depressed, he remembered the piano in his dormitory rec room and wandered down to sit in front of it.

He still knew how to read basic sheet music. And he was developing a nascent interest in, and a CD library of, classical music. So just as suddenly as he had decided to become a pro cyclist, at age 20 he decided he would become a classical pianist. By teaching himself, of course.

"When I first started playing, I sat down and I plotted and I schemed and I had a few weeks where I devised my life plan," Hull recounts. "I thought lessons would just be a waste of my time. The technical stuff, especially, I thought I didn't need help with."

Instead, he just played — up to 10 hours a day. He carefully listened to recordings by favorite 20th-century pianists such as Vladimir Horowitz and Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. After a brief love affair with Liszt, he settled on mastering his current repertoire: a dash of Rachmaninoff, but mostly Chopin's nocturnes and etudes, the latter having been specifically written as a series of technical exercises.

Hull took a leave of absence from Rice to prepare for an audition for the school's esteemed music conservatory. He was rejected, but a professor offered to take him as a private student if he returned to school to study another subject. Hull just couldn't. "After that year of playing like eight, ten hours a day, I wasn't prepared to give it up to spend six hours on philosophy homework or something," he says. After a couple of attempts to resume school, he left again, never to return. Instead, he informed his parents he was going to become a concert pianist.

"I was a little taken aback. This is not something that one just springs on their parents when you've had no musical background," Dawn says. "I think both his dad and I were somewhat stunned, but then we said, 'Well, that's Kris. He's just going to do his own thing.'"

On a weekday afternoon in late February, Kris Hull is cheerful. The Worst Day Ever is still a few days away, and his spirits are high. Miami seems full of possibility.

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