Michael Pasikov practices his craft for hours each day. Michael Pasikov practices his craft for hours each day. Michael Pasikov practices his craft for hours each day. (Photo: Benyamin Cohen)

Cancer survivor vows to perform 100 piano concerts for charity

Michael Pasikov was destined for the symphony, but life got in the way. Then came the cancer, and something amazing happened.

A cancer patient in a wheelchair rolls up to the grand piano in a hospital lobby and takes a deep breath. Dressed in nothing but a hospital gown, he begins to play Chopin's "Fantasie Impromptu" with the soulful passion of a man who has nothing to lose.

The cancer has riddled his body. A blood clot is causing his right foot – the one used for pedaling the piano – to be so swollen he can't even lift it off the ground.

"Because of the disease, there were cramps in my hands as well," he recalls of that moment three years ago. "So sometimes I would take poetic license, and they thought it was very expressive, but I was just trying to get my hands to move again."

The classical notes begin to bounce off the walls of Israel's Hadassah Hospital. They wake patients from their slumber and pull them from their rooms to the source of the music – like children in the trance of the Pied Piper.

There, as his spindly fingers tickle the ivories of the Blüthner grand piano, known as one of the 10 best pianos in the world, Michael Pasikov made a promise to himself. If he makes it out of the doors of this hospital alive, he's going to give back. He would give 100 concerts in hospitals and for charity.

The Israeli city of Beit Shemesh is a comfortable bedroom community located about halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Nestled amidst the picturesque Judean Hills, almost everywhere in this commuter town offers a stunning view. Walking up one of the hills, it's not hard to find the third-floor apartment of Michael Pasikov. That's because the music wafts out of his home like the sweet scent of a freshly baked pie, guiding visitors up the staircase and right to his front door.

A quick knock and the music comes to an abrupt halt. The 55-year-old, now three years into remission, opens the door. Dressed in an untucked blue button-down shirt, jeans and black sneakers, he welcomes us in. An upright Yamaha piano rests against the wall of the living room, with a leather-bound office chair on wheels in place of a stool. He offers water in a paper cup with a piano drawing on its side and you begin to get the picture of Pasikov's passion.

The story of how he got to where he is now echoes that of so many rising stars. Born in Detroit, he spent his childhood in Chicago and began playing the piano when he was 5 years old. He started with Mozart's Piano Sonata No. 16, learning it by ear and eventually mastering it like someone way beyond his years.

Pasikov's dad took young Michael to the home of a family friend, a concert violinist, to hear the boy play. While he said the young prodigy had talent, he also said Michael should find something else to do with his life because music is a hard career. "My father heard, 'Find something else,' and I heard, 'This boy is talented. He should go into music," Pasikov wistfully recalls, leaning back in his chair. "It was like we heard two different things."

Nonetheless, his parents enrolled him at Northwestern University in a special preparatory program for Juilliard. It's there, from the second grade all the way until the end of high school, where he honed his craft. His dedicated mother spent an hour taking him back and forth from lessons. He gave performances in concert halls.

With high school in the rearview mirror and Juilliard calling his name, Pasikov's music career seemed set in motion. That is, until his dad stepped in. "My father put the kibosh on it and said, 'No. It's not the proper career. Go find something else. So the Juilliard plans were put on hold and we figured out what other careers would be good for me, and I went into math and computer science."

While he never truly gave up playing the piano, life carried on. He got married and became busy raising a family. He moved to Israel in 1999. "There were times that I didn't even have a piano in my house, so I didn't practice. I let it go."

Fifteen years went by and he hardly ever sat down in front of a piano. "For most situations, losing 15 years of constant practice would be devastating." Jascha Heifetz, the classical violinist who played Carnegie Hall to rapturous applause, famously said: "If I don't practice one day, I notice it, and if I don't practice two days, the critics notice it, and if I don't practice three days, the audience notices it."

Pasikov got divorced, and he found himself at something of a mid-life crossroads. He decided to start playing again and enlisted a concert pianist to help him get back in shape. He practiced everyday, sometimes for three to four hours at a time. "My whole thing was how to really get something out of music, make it live, make it an emotion, make it something."

And then the cancer reared its ugly head. It was an advanced, aggressive form of lymphoma. He practically moved into Hadassah Hospital. "Listen, if I'm here, then I'm going to make the best out of it that I can." That's when he saw the beautiful Blüthner grand piano, the very same model played by Mahler and Brahms, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky.

After that first and fateful impromptu performance, he came back to the lobby each day to play some more. And each day there would be a crowd of visitors, patients and doctors – sometimes they would ask him to play certain songs. "All sorts of amazing things started happening," he says, his piercing hazel eyes lighting up at the recollection.

A distinguished physician visiting from another Israeli hospital asked Pasikov to play for his patients in hospice care. "There was an elderly gentleman who was in terrific pain and his wife wheeled him over because he enjoyed the music," Pasikov remembers. "The wife was very emotional and starts crying and said this is the first time that he's ever experienced any joy in the last two months."

Pasikov says he felt something special that day. "As I was playing, I felt that we were making this connection, and he sat there for like 15 or 20 minutes or so and then he left. He didn't want to disturb my playing, so he blew kisses to me to show how much he appreciated it. He taught me something amazing ... that no matter what you go through in life, if you can find 15 to 20 minutes of some beauty, some joy, some something that you absolutely love, something that absolutely makes you happy and content and relaxed – then the rest of the day, even though it's overwhelmingly challenging, you have that 15 minutes."

He began performing at other hospitals and charity events and made a personal promise to give 100 concerts. As of this writing, he's up to 71. "It's much more rewarding than performing regular concerts," he admits. "It's touching people's lives."

"The next thing I want to do is give a performance for the town of Beit Shemesh because they were amazing when I was sick. They did a lot for me, and I want to show them appreciation. My mother, brother, children and friends all helped me heal." He's also teaching piano now and giving public seminars where he plays a piece of symphonic music and then gives an explanation. "That's more for the layman that's just getting into classical music, so they can understand where this music is coming from, who the composers are, what they did and what was special about them."

To that end, thanks to the help of a successful Kickstarter campaign, he's created a DVD series explaining some of Chopin's more famous pieces. He also came out with a CD filled with 50 minutes of soothing music which he gives to people. "The cab drivers love them because it calms them down," he says with a laugh.

He says he's growing from concert to concert. "A singer has it a little bit different because they can use words to say what the music means, but a pianist has to just use innuendo," he tells us. "He has to use the piano and all the things he can do on the piano to evoke something in somebody. From my experience playing in the hospital, I developed an acute sense of this emotional thing, how to touch somebody, what makes a piece beautiful. Somebody that's hospitalized – what is it that's going to touch them? Is it the piece? Is it how you play the piece? Is it what you can do with the piece?"

While he's now cancer-free, Pasikov is well aware of the fragility of life. "There's a good chance it could reoccur, but the situation is that it's given me a very, very good appreciation of life. To me, life is every day. Life isn't about making plans that are way in the future. Life is every day moving forward and enjoying the day and the gift that you're given. Every day is a life on its own. That's my attitude. That's my philosophy. It's not just that life is a certain span of years, but every day has a beginning, middle, end and it's a complete life in itself."

Very much like a symphony.

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