UAB ophthalmologist Drew Mays is performing in the UAB Department of Music Piano Series, which brings to campus the world’s preeminent pianists – a group in which he clearly has established he belongs.

The score of the return of Andrew Mays, M.D., to the world of competitive music playing needs to be marked fortissimo.

When the UAB ophthalmologist returned to piano competition in fall 2006 after a 20-year hiatus, he finished second in the Amateur International Piano Competition in Colorado Springs.

In the 16 months since then, he has gone on to earn first prize in the 2007 Van Cliburn International Competition for Outstanding Amateurs and an invitation from professor of Music Yakov Kasman to perform his own concert in the Alys Stephens Center Reynolds-Kirschbaum Recital Hall Jan. 27.

“Things,” says Mays, “have just gotten wild.” Mays is performing in the UAB Department of Music Piano Series, which brings to campus the world’s preeminent pianists – a group in which Mays clearly has established he belongs. The concert is sold out.

“I'm honored and thrilled to have the opportunity to do this,” Mays says. “I just can’t believe the number of people who are interested in hearing this music. It brings me great joy to share some of the greatest music ever written.”

To compete, or not
Mays earned a bachelor of music degree from the University of Alabama studying with Amanda Penick, then pursued advanced music studies as a graduate student at the Manhattan School of Music and the conservatory of music in Hannover, Germany. He began working toward his degree in medicine in 1987 – the same year he earned a master of music degree from the University of Alabama.

Mays set a number of goals for himself as a music student. The Van Cliburn competition was one of those goals and he decided to go for it. Van Cliburn is, after all, his music idol.

“When I was a little boy I heard Van Cliburn perform with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and I was blown away,” he says. “We sat so far away I needed binoculars to see him. I was probably 10 or 11. I remember saying, ‘That’s what I want to do when I grow up.’”

So Mays entered the weeklong Van Cliburn competition. The amateur competition is for those ages 35 and older who do not earn their livelihood playing or providing instruction on the piano. The event featured 75 pianists invited from an applicant pool of 121. Mays’ goal was to make it to the semi-final round of 25. He got there. Then he made the finals.

A little intrigue
After the six finalists were announced late Saturday, June 2, Mays slept a few hours and prepared to play in the finals the next day.

The whole week the competition ran smoothly and very punctually even with a Hollywood producer, director and film crew shooting the feature-length documentary “They Came to Play,” which now is in the editing phase. Cameras were everywhere, following performers and their families.

Mays had his moment with the cameras, too, before he played in the finals. For the first time the competition was behind schedule. Mays had been summoned to the warm-up room and then told he was going to have to wait longer than anticipated. That’s when he began to get nervous.

“I slipped out the back door of the building, and I started jogging in the courtyard in a tux,” Mays says. “I had to do something besides sit and wait. Then I turned around and saw the camera crew filming. They’d probably been there the whole time. It added to the pressure. I had no private time to collect my thoughts.”

It mattered not. Mays won the competition and top ranking in the world for amateur pianists, and his life really began to change.

Honors, opportunities
Honors and opportunities continue to arise for Mays. His playing schedule for this year already includes Gorhams Bluff in February, a benefit recital in Tuscaloosa in March, a concert in Laguna Beach, Calif., in April and a chance to perform with the Montgomery Symphony during the 2008-09 season. All of these opportunities are exciting, but Mays says there are two aspects of this he takes particularly seriously. One is that he and his fellow competitors must carry the torch of bringing classical music to life for new audiences – something Cliburn told them they have to do.

“He said we have the perfect opportunity to get people into the concert hall that wouldn’t normally go. That, to me, is our mission.”

The other important thing is Mays’ heritage. He’s a Southerner, and he received most of his training in Alabama. He was one of just a few competitors from the South.

“I just want to do my little part to make Alabama look good,” he says. “I want people to say, ‘That guy from Alabama really was good.’ I don’t think the rest of the world knows how sophisticated culturally we are in Alabama. I hope I can help showcase us all in a positive way.”