When Brian Ganz quit high school at age 16, he did so with the blessing of his parents, both teachers.
The Columbia teen's passion for playing the piano had developed into a burning pursuit of perfection. Four years earlier, a piano teacher had recognized his musical talent and encouraged his family to support it.
"My parents told me, 'If you really want to go for this, we encourage you to put all of your eggs into one basket.' If you have a gift, you have to put everything you've got into it," Ganz said.
On Saturday, 16 years after his departure, Ganz returns to perform a benefit concert at Wilde Lake High School. At 32, he is an internationally recognized pianist.
His most recent award was a silver medal received last year in the Queen Elisabeth International Music Competition in Brussels, Belgium. The finals of the month-long competition were televised every evening by the country's two major networks.
"The people looked at the event like a cultural world series. . . . I got recognized walking down the streets; that never happens here," Ganz said.
He's won several other national and international awards, and has performed with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and the National Orchestra of Belgium.
Ganz's busy schedule includes national tours in the United States and performances in Japan, Holland and France. Last year he was on the road five months.
He lives in Olney with his wife, Andrea.
"My grandfather was a pianist, and he provided my family with our first piano when we moved to Columbia in 1969," said Ganz.
A year later, Ganz was taking lessons from Claire Deene, a Baltimore violinist who taught piano and "excellent learning habits" and introduced him to the work of Frederic Chopin.
"I had been bitten by the Chopin bug and knew that I wanted to make a life of being a musician," Ganz said.
The accomplishments of today seem very distant from the isolation he describes as a 16-year-old who spent eight hours a day at the keyboard.
"It was a lonely period," he said. "I might not see anyone all day, until my sister Nicole would come home from school. It cultivated a certain intensity in my personality. I had a manager, and I was touring, but I realized that I wasn't happy doing that. I needed to grow in other [non-musical] ways. I burned out at 18."
His friends then included students who shared interests in music and theater. They would sometimes gather in Ganz's living room as he practiced, recalls Deborah Jeffreys Hurley, a Columbia resident and a friend since grade school.
"We took his talent for granted, because we were exposed to him so much," she said. "He could be that talented artist, and still be that great guy you could have fun with."
During that period, he earned a high school equivalency diploma. And to broaden his education, he later enrolled in liberal arts courses at Catholic University of America in Washington where he studied for two years.
In addition to a regular schedule of performances, Ganz has founded the Washington chapter of Artists To End Hunger, a national organization that raises money through benefit concerts. The efforts of his local group have produced $100,000.
"Service is what life is all about," Ganz said. "When I have the opportunity to make a difference in a concrete way, it's a real privilege."
Saturday's concert will benefit The Steven Daniel Jeffreys Foundation, an organization that focuses on the issues of grief.
Besides these commitments, Ganz is musician-in-residence at St. Mary's College of Maryland in St. Mary's City, where he teaches two days a week. And he continues his own studies about once a week at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University.
"My first teacher made me feel that I had a responsibility," he said.
"I fell madly in love with music, and she encouraged me to work hard. I feel very fortunate to have found something that early and to have stayed with it throughout the years," he said.
Where to see him
Brian Ganz will perform at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Wilde Lake High School in Columbia. Advance tickets are $12 for general admission; $10 for students and senior citizens; $15 and $13 at the door.