Oliver Mitchum started playing the piano when he was just 7 years old.
No one in his family really played an instrument, so music was “kind of a foreign concept” to him.
But his parents signed him up anyway.
“I remember on my way over there thinking about all the scribble marks in the hymnals at church,” Mitchum says of that first lesson, “and being like, ‘How on earth does anyone understand this?’”
More than a decade — and hundreds of hours of practice — later, Mitchum doesn’t just understand how to read and play music. He’s become an artist. He started composing his own piano pieces when he was 10 years old, played piano at his church growing up and also picked up the saxophone — an instrument he earned honors for playing during his time at Jordan-Matthews High School.
Now a rising junior at N.C. State studying mechanical engineering, Mitchum is in his school’s marching band — “The Power Sound of the South” — along with the basketball team pep band. He grew up watching college football with his family, so traveling to and watching games was appealing. But more than that, Mitchum says he was drawn to the community, and to the music they could make together.
“Being surrounded by that many people in that community was really nice,” Mitchum, 21, says. “It was nice to go over there and have so many new friendships just right there. And also, it was fun to play with such a large group, because we made a lot of sound.”
He made it to one ACC Tournament Basketball game his first year before the games were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year, the pandemic limited a lot of what the band and pep teams were able to do together.
“We didn’t really have any in-person marching band, we just made a few recordings where we each individually took a video of ourselves playing a piece and then like someone that university would combine it into one single video,” he says. “Which was pretty cool and neat to see how they edited all of that together. It definitely wasn’t as fun as being able to travel and be with all the people you’re playing with though.
Pandemic or not, Mitchum has continued to practice and make music.
While much of his course work last year was online, that didn’t necessarily ease the load. He’s always enjoyed math and science in school, as well as doing things like fixing and working on cars. He still enjoys those things, and still plans to be an engineer.
“But music for me, it’s kind of a break from all the other stuff,” Mitchum says, “When you’re in an engineering program, you get so much of that, that it gets kind of tiring after a little while. I kind of found it therapeutic in a way just to be able to relieve stress and everything by just sitting down at a keyboard and playing music.”
Mitchum says he’s “definitely more invested in piano,” but he plans to continue making music — including the saxophone — his “number one hobby” for years to come.
Next weekend, he’ll tick off another music accomplishment: playing his first solo concert, at his home church, Brown’s Chapel United Methodist Church in Pittsboro. Mitchum’s excited for the opportunity, but it wasn’t his idea. He said a longtime family friend and fellow church member, Robin Brady, proposed the idea to him.
Brady, who’s been a member at Brown’s Chapel for the last 15 years, remembers Mitchum when he first started playing piano.
“I remember his grandmother telling me his piano instructor had told his parents that he no longer needed lessons, he was beyond needing lessons in his skill level,” Brady says. “Oliver would play at church for special occasions. When he began playing original pieces that were really good, the congregation knew he had a very special gift.”
Last month, Mitchum played such a moving rendition of the hymn “In the Garden” at church, Brady said, that she and another church member suggested paying to hear him play.
“The light bulb went on and I asked Oliver if he would consider playing a concert, for the church and the community, and he replied with an enthusiastic, ‘Sure,’” she says. “I just began putting things in place for ‘An Evening of Music with Oliver.’ I later learned that Oliver’s ‘In the Garden’ performance a few weeks earlier had been arranged on the fly — he had never played it that way before the church service that Sunday.”
Mitchum’s concert will take place at 7 p.m. this Sunday and feature hymns, classical music, and original compositions — including songs written and to be performed by his friend, Savannah Cribbs. The event will feature a radio broadcast in the church parking lot, followed by a short reception.
For those who can’t make it, Brady said people can hear some of Mitchum’s music under the playlist tab on Brown’s Chapel United Methodist Church’s YouTube channel.
“I would love for everyone in the community to experience Oliver’s talent,” she says.
Until then, Mitchum is busy practicing, as he says he sets pretty high expectations for how he plays music.
What makes all the practice and time spent playing worth it? For Mitchum, it’s listening to himself play. Not because he is arrogant or cocky about his own ability, but because he loves to find and then produce music that’s satisfying to him.
And, he adds, his church family — and all their encouragement — keeps him going, too.
“Whenever I go and play, I’ve been asked probably hundreds of times, ‘Hey, you’re gonna keep playing the piano in college, right?’” he says. “‘Yes, I’m gonna keep doing that.’ Because I don’t think they would let me stop if I ever quit. But really, I just enjoy it so much myself that I would not want to quit. It’s a big part of my life.”
This story was updated with the correct concert date.
Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @HannerMcClellan.
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