Central senior recognized as ILMEA All-State Pianist


Photo courtesy of Donald Valencia

Central senior Donald Valencia has played in front of over 2,000 people, with skills dubbed “a rarity” by Central band director DJ Alstadt.

Ziad El Bego, Staff Writer

 Donald Valencia has been playing piano since he was 9 years old. He has played at multiple music competitions and was selected as the All-State Pianist by the Illinois Music Educators Association (ILMEA) in 2022 for his skillful piano playing.  

“I started off a long time ago,” Valencia said. “Nine years ago I inherited a little upright piano from my grandmother, and I just started having fun with it. Eventually, my mom enrolled me in lessons, so I kind of took off from there.”

Valencia grew more as a musician after he started working with Robert Sacks, a graduate of the Peabody Institute of Music at Johns Hopkins University.  

“I started with [Sacks] my freshman year [of high school],” Valencia said. “He actually lives in downtown Naperville. After school on Fridays, for like the past four years, I just walk over to his house and get a lesson. I think getting to work with a guy that’s graduated from such a prestigious music school is what took me off in different aspects of my musicality.” 

Valencia has also worked for four years with Naperville Central’s jazz band director DJ Alstadt.  

“To see him start off as an interested pianist, to [now] wanting to make it his life [has] been a wonderful adventure,” Alstadt said. “[The] seriousness that he takes in his development is incredibly admirable.”  

One of the experiences that shaped Valencia most was his performance with the ILMEA All-State Honors Band in 2022 as a junior. 

“That was in Peoria, and we got to play in this giant ice skating rink,” Valencia said. “There were all the best orchestra kids in the state, all the best band kids, and all the best choir kids and I got to play with the band on the piano. So it was a huge honor. I think the crowd was well over 2000 people, so it [was] a big, cool experience.“ 

Valencia is skilled in many piano pieces from different genres and time periods. He is able to swap between styles easily and does so often. 

“I think what really separates [Valencia] from a lot of people is that he could sit down at the piano and feel as comfortable playing something from the 1700s to the music of now and everywhere in between,” Alstadt said. “We have students that are very good at concert, and jazz and pop music and things like that, but to find people that can do it all? Yeah, I would say that’s a rarity.”

Valencia’s biggest accomplishment was being named the 2022 ILMEA All-State Pianist, recognizing him as the best high school pianist in the state. 

“The biggest [competition] that I thankfully won was All-State,” Valencia said. “Last year I won for piano and I was marked down as best pianist in the state. That’s a cool title, but I’ve met other kids in Chicago that I think are more talented than me.”

Valencia is currently in the process of auditioning for college music conservatories and plans to compete in more music competitions while at college. 

“I’d like to say thank you to Mr. Alstadt,” Valencia said. “He has helped me so much throughout all of it, and I definitely would not be here today without Mr. Aldstadt. I can’t thank him enough. I feel like any musician that’s trying to do what I’m trying to do and get into conservatories [needs] somebody like that. Otherwise, it’s just impossible. I’d also like to say thank you to my teacher Robert Sacks. If you’re interested in piano lessons, definitely check out the Piano Studio of Robert Sacks. When I started I was really bad but I’m much better now than I was when I started.” 

Valencia plans to continue his career as a musician and achieve even more in the future. 

“I think probably the most important thing about Donald, what makes Donald a really special musician, is that he’s a better human being,” Alstadt said. “I don’t care how well a high school musician plays. We’ve had kids that have graduated here that have gone on and won Grammys and are in the New York Philharmonic and they write for Hollywood but if [you’re] not a good human being, people won’t want to work with you. [Donald] is gonna go far because he’s just such a kind, compassionate, and empathetic person. That’s more important than anything else. He represents our school well, and he’s gonna go places.”