Yakov Kasman, D.M.A., works three-and-a-half blocks away from Andrew Mays, M.D., on UAB’s campus. But it took a 1,300-plus mile trip for Kasman to learn who Mays is.

It’s no fault of Kasman, a world-renowned pianist and professor of music here at UAB. Why would he have a reason to know Mays, a UAB ophthalmologist? After all, Kasman says, his eyesight is pretty good.

But Mays knew plenty about Kasman before they met for the first time in Colorado Springs this summer at the sixth annual Amateur International Piano Competition.

Mays remembers seeing Kasman play on TV in the 10th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 1997 in his American debut. “He was incredible,” Mays says. “Yakov is just a great performer.” Plus, Mays’ children had performed at recitals along with Kasman’s.

Imagine Kasman’s shock when he shows up to judge the finals of the Amateur International Piano Competition, picks up a program and sees he’ll be judging a guy from Birmingham.

“That was a complete surprise,” Kasman says. “I’ve lived in Birmingham for four years. I thought I knew everyone who plays piano well in this town, but it turns out I didn’t, because there’s one more at least. It just so happens his first job is ophthalmologist.”

Mays managed to play his way through the preliminaries, semifinals and into the finals where Kasman heard him play for the first time. Mays finished second in the competition, which had 25 participants.

But the question still lingers. How could Kasman have never heard of Mays if he was good enough to finish second in this international competition?

That’s easy. This was the first time Mays had played on stage in a competition in 20 years.

“In July of 1987 I played a recital in Hulsey Hall,” Mays says. “Two weeks later I was in medical school. Then I got married, started having kids. I quit playing for eight years.”

Quite a comeback
The desire to play, however, was always still there. Mays moved his piano back and forth with him from Decatur to Birmingham, despite the fact he didn’t have the time to play or practice. Finally, in 2002, Mays started practicing again. “It literally took years to get back in shape,” he says.

One day, when he was having his piano tuned, the person doing the tuning had Mays play the instrument for him. He was impressed with what he heard.

“He said ‘You play pretty well. Why don’t you try one of those amateur piano competitions,’” Mays recalls. “I thought about it and went to look up amateur piano competitions on the Internet.”

He saw the competition for Colorado Springs, which just happened to be where a cousin lives. Mays and his wife decided they would take a family vacation and he would enter the competition.

Mays went into the competition hoping to make the semifinals, but didn’t have any further expectations. He wound up being the talk of the competition.

One of the judges came up to Mays after the finals and said he had predicted five of the six he thought would make the finals after reading the roster of those who were competing. The judge told Mays he wasn’t one of the ones he thought would get there.

“He said ‘You were the dark horse,’” Mays says. “I said, ‘Well, you shouldn’t have had me picked. I haven’t done this in a while.’”

Passion for music
Kasman was especially impressed.

“He has a tremendous passion for music,” Kasman says. “People were raving about his playing after the preliminary and semifinals. When I heard him for the first time in the finals, he was an incredible, professional pianist and musician. He was a wonderful artist on the stage.”

Mays received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music while studying with Amanda Penick at the University of Alabama. He studied further at the Conservatory of Music in Hanover, Germany, and did master’s level work at the Manhattan School of Music all before completing a residency in ophthalmology at the Callahan Eye Foundation Hospital.

“He studied piano in great schools with great teachers,” Kasman says. “How he plays the piano doesn’t fall from the sky. It’s earned with hard work, practice and developing great skill.”

Mays says he may enter another amateur competition in the spring, but he’s not sure if he’ll go back to Colorado Springs next year.

But he is sure of one thing: He’s not giving up his ophthalmology duties any time soon. “Finishing second was fun,” he says, “but I didn’t give up my day job.”