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Upper West Sider Switches From Dribbling Balls To Tickling Ivories

By Leslie Albrecht | April 22, 2011 6:49am | Updated on April 24, 2011 8:45am
Upper West Sider Emir Gamsizoglu was a professional basketball player in Turkey before he became a concert pianist.
Upper West Sider Emir Gamsizoglu was a professional basketball player in Turkey before he became a concert pianist.
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Courtesy of Emir Gamsizoglu

By Leslie Albrecht

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

UPPER WEST SIDE — Luckily for Emir Gamsizoglu, the motion your hand makes dribbling a basketball isn't too different from playing two notes on a piano an octave apart.

Gamsizoglu, 38, was once a professional basketball player for Istanbul's Besiktas team, the club that recruited former NBA star Allen Iverson in 2010. Today, he's a professional pianist who plays in European concert halls.

Standing just 5 feet, 8 inches tall, Gamsizoglu was a midget by basketball standards. Breaking through defenders to land shots as a point guard demanded an obsessive stubbornness, he said.

Gamsizoglu deployed that same persistence when he dropped basketball after one too many injuries and devoted himself full-time to becoming a professional concert pianist.

Emir Gamsizoglu, in the center of the front row, was a point guard on Istanbul's Besiktas basketball team before becoming a concert pianist.
Emir Gamsizoglu, in the center of the front row, was a point guard on Istanbul's Besiktas basketball team before becoming a concert pianist.
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Courtesy of Emir Gamsizoglu

As a basketball player, Gamsizoglu mostly rode the bench because he was one of the team's younger players. But when he enrolled at the Istanbul State Conservatory at age 22, he was considered ancient for a music novice. Some of his classmates had started their musical careers as toddlers.

Gamsizoglu came to music relatively late in life. His mother, a ballet teacher, took him to a few piano lessons when he was four years old, but Gamsizoglu hated to practice and stopped studying the instrument.

When he started school a few years later, he caught the basketball bug from his best friend, who loved the game. Gamsizoglu, then 6, made it his personal goal to become the first Turkish player in the NBA. He drew inspiration from the Cleveland Cavaliers player Mark Price, who was a relatively short 6 feet tall.

At age 19, Gamsizoglu made it to Besiktas, one of three pro teams in Istanbul. But after he fractured a hip, doctors ordered Gamsizoglu to keep off his feet as much as possible for several months.

As he recuperated at home, Gamsizoglu passed the hours by watching movies and TV. It was the 1990s, before the Internet, and Gamsizoglu, who describes himself as a "hyperactive" person, suffered from intense boredom.

His mother would sometimes play the piano, and one day Gamsizoglu listened in as she played Chopin's waltz in C sharp minor. Desperate for any activity to distract him, Gamsizoglu decided to try playing the piece himself.

When his mother left the house, he sat down at the piano and picked out the melody from memory. When his mother returned a few hours later, he played the waltz for her. "I showed her, and she was really amazed," Gamsizoglu said. "I didn't do everything correctly, but the piece was there."

From that moment on, Gamsizoglu took a new path. His mother found him a piano teacher, which eventually led to enrolling at the conservatory. After seven years of "slow progress," he was invited to study piano in Paris with Huseyin Sermet, a well-known Turkish pianist.

In 2007, he moved to New York with his wife, Ege, who had a Fulbright grant to study acting. Now an Upper West Sider who lives at West 86th Street and Columbus Avenue, he leaves New York about once a month to play concerts in France, Italy and Turkey.

He's also composed several works, including one called the "Dribble Waltz." Gamsizoglu is now finishing up a master's degree in piano performance at City College.

Emir Gamsizoglu playing with his piano trio,
Emir Gamsizoglu playing with his piano trio, "Istanbul Trio."
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Courtesy of Emir Gamsizoglu

He says there are similarities between playing basketball and playing the piano. Both require a lot of practice, and the relationship between a coach and player is similar to that of a teacher and student, Gamsizoglu said.

But there are differences too. When you play classical music for an audience, the crowd is silent, and it's impossible to know how they're reacting to your work, Gamsizoglu said.

"In a game, if they hate you, they curse at you," Gamsizoglu said. "In a concert, you don't know it. The process is more nerve-racking."

But making a mistake on the basketball court is a little easier to handle than messing up during a concert, he said.

"Making a mistake in a basketball game is sometimes better, because when you do something better later in the game, people forgive you," Gamsizoglu said. "It's not the same in music. When you play a wrong note, you play a wrong note. There's no going back."

See Emir Gamsizoglu perform this weekend at a benefit concert for V-Day, a movement to end violence against women. Gamsizoglu will play works by Bach, Chopin and Schubert at 6:30 p.m., Saturday, April 23 at Fourth Universalist Society, 160 Central Park West. Tickets are $15.