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Omaha Magazine

Pitch-Perfect Memory: Luke Eckles’ Key(s) to Stardom

Sep 29, 2022 04:33PM ● By Julius Fredrick
luke eckles sees his own reflection in grand piano

Photo by Bill Sitzmann    

A quartet of D notes, followed by C, a B-flat, and two more D’s dips into an F, up to an A, and down for a pair of G’s. This sequence fills the opening moments of video recorded in the lobby of Omaha’s Majestic Theater on November 3, 2018. Awestruck moviegoers were filmed slowly entering the theater, their numbers swelling with the music. Transcribed into verse, the notes read: “Mama…life had just begun…”  

Behind the purling keys of a grand piano sits Luke Eckles. His skill, focus, and showmanship are on full display—as thousands more will see after the video’s upload to viral media outlet, NowThis News. As the rendition of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” waxes and wanes over widening eyes, the video frame reveals a puzzling vacancy:  the shelf. 

Queen’s progressive, six-part suite—intro, ballad, solo, opera, interlude, and coda—is being performed, con brio, sans sheet music. Guided by memory alone, Eckles reaches the final, lingering keys; their plaintive toll quickly devoured by roaring applause. The then 14-year-old takes a bow.

“I got Luke when he was probably in first grade, 6-years-old, little bitty thing,” recalled Cindy Wrenn, who’s offered private piano lessons for 18 of the 25 years she’s performed secretarial duties at Grace Abbott Elementary. “He had already taught himself to play with one finger, and he would peck out the ‘Itsy Bitsy Spider’ or ‘There Was an Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly.’ He really loved that one!”

“I thought to myself, ‘boy, do we have a lot of work to do with that fingering,’ but it was an easy switch-over for him,” she said. “He was just driven, you know? He was always self-motivated.”

Under Wrenn’s weekly tutelage, Eckles made tickling the ivories the cornerstone of his life’s ambition, one he’s continued building upon with tireless enthusiasm. While the burgeoning pianist possesses the foresight—and the towering ability—to peak over the horizon, his gratitude for Wrenn’s seven years of support remains down-to-earth.

“Cindy helped me scope the meaning behind the music I was playing,” Eckles affirmed. “We would go in-depth about, not just what I was playing, but why? Why this note was here instead of here, why this chord resolved to this chord—she really helped me understand these musical patterns that’ve built up to the music I’m playing now.”

“I could tell he had the gift,” Wrenn said, “and then after a point, it became obvious, he became better than the teacher.” 

“He plays everything by memory. Everything. It’s amazing, he doesn’t use sheet music,” she replied when pressed on the quality of his talent. “His [memorized] repertoire is immense, just fabulous…I would consider him a prodigy.” 

Wrenn, and Eckles’ mother, Tracy, initially encouraged him to pursue more advanced private tutorship through middle and high school.  But the preteen decided to shelve the strict legacy of classical training, if only temporarily, for something more flexible—or, at the very least, more colorful.

“Between the ages of 12 and 17 I was completely on my own,” Eckles said. “So I started learning covers of popular classic rock songs and pop songs, which started getting me these corporate gigs around town.”

After his breakout performance at the Majestic, Eckles began playing the lobby regularly. Tips, and more lucrative still, business cards, filled a bowl set out by bartenders working the theater’s Take Five Lounge.

“Champion’s Run hired me to play a lot, their Christmas events,” he continued, “and another notable one, Berkshire Hathaway, has a corporate party for Christmas and they’d usually book me for that. The American Heart Association, their Heart Ball, I was one of the main musicians for that, too.”

“Really, it just kind of spanned out from the theater [performances],” he said.

Viral fame, high-profile events, not having to buy denim pre-ripped because the money’s already burnt holes in his pockets (having a bit of fun there), and all by virtue of freewheeling musical talent. Throw in a drop-top Camaro—or maybe it’s a Playstation 5 these days—and the teenage fever dream is realized in glorious technicolor. 

Yet, as Eckles’ senior year at Millard North High School drew to a close, college beckoned, and so too the old, familiar notes of Bach, Beethoven, and Dubois. 

“Yeah, the college admission process, that’s pretty much exclusively classical music,” Eckles said. “I had to take the time—basically my whole senior year—to learn the classical style, and I did that pretty all from sheet music books. By May or so, I had a full 45-minute classical recital, and I had it memorized.” 

Now, in his freshman year at the University of Nebraska—Lincoln, double majoring in piano performance and mathematics, he embodies a synaptic crossfire that’s peppered history with musical triumph time and again. 

“If your brain has the ability to instantly recognize patterns, the correlations between different things, that will benefit you, both in the spheres of music and math,” he noted. “But the people I’m going to be learning from, just going to college, it’s going to open up a whole new lens.”

For now, the college freshman maintains a grounded perspective toward his career after graduation.

“Overall, I’m just going to be happy if I’m playing piano somewhere and making a stable income, though I would love to play in a Broadway pit orchestra,” he said.

Despite his open-ended ambitions, Eckles doesn’t intend to go “anywhere the wind blows.” Rather, it’s anywhere his passion grows.

“You really, just, got to give it your all if you’re passionate about it. Don’t let society tell you, ‘oh you have to do this,’” he urged. “Everybody says it’s a cliche at this point, but it’s a true one…”

“Find what you like, and do it.” 

Visit YouTube to watch Eckles' "Bohemian Rhapsody" performance.

This article originally appeared in the October 2022 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  

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