Growing Up Gifted

Classical pianist and child prodigy Nikae Grace talks inspiration and art as language.

Text by Lindsey Kesel
Images by Chris Rohrer

A true-to-form prodigy, Grace Nikae took her first piano lesson at nine months old. Two years later, she was playing complex concertos and reading Mark Twain novels.

“You don’t realize what you’re doing is not like everyone else. It’s the most natural thing in the world,” she says. “But our way of perceiving patterns is different. It doesn’t simply apply to musical notes but also math, language, reading words on a page.”

Nikae made her professional debut with the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra at 8 years old. At 14 years old, she was offered early university acceptance but chose instead to continue her education at ‘Iolani School. She played Carnegie Hall before her 18th birthday and, at 21 years old, began studying under renowned Ukrainian pianist Alexander Slobodyanik, “a profound influence who helped me transition from child to adult artist.” Then Nikae embarked on an international concert career that spanned two decades and showcased her music in elite concert halls from London to Tokyo.

Playing piano has always been a journey of self-discovery for Nikae: “Music gave me a voice to say things I couldn’t say with my real voice, to explore the great themes of existence—what does it mean to be an individual, to love, to grieve, to search for something more?”

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She found inspiration in the many artists and intellectuals in her family, including a mathematician uncle who solved a theorem he’d been working on for 25 years. “I remember when he finally solved it, it was so beyond my understanding,” Nikae says. “I was so struck by the amount of concentration and the amount of passion. Even when he couldn’t see a result, he continued to believe and search.”

Seeking a way to connect with others more directly through music, she served as a cultural ambassador for the U.S. Department of State and as an artistic ambassador for UNICEF Spain, helping children in impoverished areas in India, Nepal, and Ghana develop their artistic voices. In 2014, she renounced the rigors of touring to forge a new path, one she hoped would bring her greater fulfillment.

“This art belongs to you, but very often, the world makes the artist feel like they have an obligation to give that art to everyone else,” she says. “I wanted to be able to find out who I was when I walked away
from the piano.”

Since then, Nikae has published nine novels under a pen name and founded Gracefully Live, an organization that helps business executives develop leadership skills and shift their companies’ internal culture toward empowerment.

“I went from being a young girl who led an entire orchestra to going head-to-head with executives to get them to lead hundreds of people in the right way,” she says. “I’m working with people so they can realize their truths and become their fullest self. In many ways, that’s what I had done with myself through my art all those years.”

Nikae still plays piano every day, and she enjoys the perpetual challenge of performing her favorite pieces for benefit concerts and other charitable causes that have personal meaning to her. Now, making music is about building relationships with her listeners, where both artist and audience are united and enriched.

“Every time you play, you discover another layer, another nuance, new ways you want to express it that you couldn’t fathom before,” she says. “There’s always, to the very last breath of life, an opportunity to grow.”