My mum says the piano will attract women, but I haven't found that, to be honest," laughs JJ McNamara, who at 16 years of age, is poised to become one of Ireland's biggest musical sensations. "I don't think it's working for me."
As handsome as he is modest, the multi-award-winning JJ is the son of music producer Frank McNamara, and RTE presenter-turned-barrister Theresa Lowe. He has older twin brothers, Frankie and Quincey, 19, and a younger sister Charlotte, 14.
Growing up in a very musical household in Dunshaughlin, JJ started playing piano at six. He soon discovered that he liked performing in competitions and loved to play difficult pieces to challenge himself. He now practises two hours per day, but if there is a competition on the horizon, that could rise to five hours.
The young prodigy won his first competition aged nine, achieving a full music scholarship to Sutton Park School. "I went there instead of Belvedere College like my brothers, and I was glad because I'm sure they would have picked on me a fair bit," he jokes. "Barry Douglas is my favourite pianist, and he gave me a masterclass and gave me some great tips."
While he's in transition year at school, JJ is also studying music at DIT in Rathmines under Padraig O'Cuinneagain. "It was difficult to balance practising last year with the Junior Cert," he says. "I did okay, and to be honest, I was shocked I didn't fail anything."
He's being modest again as he actually got ten honours in the exams. JJ hopes to pursue music as a career. His outstanding accomplishments are too many to mention, but recent awards include winning the under-18s solo at the Piano Academy of Ireland's National Piano Festival, playing Hungarian Rhapsody no 2 by Liszt. He won the John Swan Cup for under-18s repertoire at the Arklow Music Festival last month, although it was later discovered that he had played with a broken leg from a football tackle a few days earlier.
"I love football as well, so maybe I would have tried to go down that route if I wasn't always practising," he smiles. "When I was younger, my legs would be shaking on stage, but you get more confident as you win things. While I'd be a bit disappointed if I didn't win, it isn't heartbreaking for me. By the time we get to McDonalds after a competition, I've forgotten all about it."
He may be as cool as a cucumber, but JJ's parents Frank and Theresa admit that they are always nervous in the audience. "I'd be dying and so would Frank," laughs Theresa. "He will even have tears running down his face at times, so JJ pretends he doesn't know us,"
When he was 12, JJ had an accident when a broken copper pipe went into his hand, resulting in emergency surgery in hospital. It could have been disastrous for the performer, but thankfully after months of physio, he was grand again. He is looking forward to appearing at the Dublin International Game Music Festival next week, with his own arrangement of video game themes in a classical style. "It's fun getting to mix up video game music, because I love Call of Duty," he says.
One very special competition that JJ won last year was the prestigious under-18s Junior Concerto piano competition at the Feis Ceoil. Each young competitor had an experienced pianist playing the orchestra part on a second piano, so JJ's dad Frank did the honours as his son played Concerto No. 2 - 3rd Movement by Shostakovich.
"It was Dad's first time to win the Feis Ceoil, so that was great," says JJ. "The judge said the reason we won was because it was so fast, she was waiting for it to crash but it didn't. Dad is really talented too, and I have learned a lot from him." And many people are on the edge of their seats to see where this young man's immense talent will lead him. Watch this space!
JJ McNamara will be a soloist at the Dublin International Game Music Festival at the Convention Centre on April 2-4.