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Sound Of Music: York brothers Joe & Ken Gallwas are talented on, off the ice

By Ross Forman, 05/21/24, 7:15PM CDT


Sophomore brothers Joe and Ken Gallwas – a right-handed shooting defenseman and a left-handed shooting forward, respectively – bring a different skillset to the ice for York High School.

Joe brings a combination of deceptive speed, positioning and physicality. “I rely on my agility and quickness to initiate breakouts from behind the net or to lead rushes up the ice with the puck,” he said. “This element of surprise often catches opponents off guard and creates scoring chances for my team. Additionally, I’m not afraid to assert my physicality on the ice, whether it’s delivering hits to the opposing team’s offense or battling for possession along the boards.”

Ken’s style of play is defined by his ability along the boards and his ability to create scoring opportunities for teammates. “I thrive in grinding for the puck while using my agility and quickness to evade defenders and maintain possession,” he said. “My slippery and quick movements make me difficult to contain, and I can dodge hits and maneuver through traffic with ease. I love feeding the slot with passes, setting up teammates for scoring chances in high-traffic areas.”

Both were state champions this past season as their York JV Team skated past Evanston for the title.

Both also have a matching off-ice passion that, well, has made them multi-time award-winners who have shined across the U.S., and on an international stage.

Both play the piano … and they are very good at it.

“Playing the piano has a unique appeal because it allows me to express myself in a completely different way than hockey does,” Joe said. “While hockey is all about speed, agility and teamwork, piano is a more solitary personal endeavor. The ability to create beautiful melodies and evoke emotions through the keys is something that has always fascinated me.”

Ken added, “I think of the piano as a person born from countless hours of practice, moments of frustration, and ultimately, moments of pure joy. The piano becomes not just an instrument, but a source of comfort from stress.”

They started playing piano as toddlers. More so, they treated the piano like any other toy, banging away on the keys without a care. “This early exposure was thanks to our mother, who was classically trained (and) an amateur blues/boogie pianist who played alongside world-renowned blues musicians,” Joe said. “When we were 5, my mother noticed our interest and got us a teacher. Most kids take six months to a year to finish a book; we blazed through one in three weeks, but mom was hands-on, helping us practice daily. We were quick learners, mastering new pieces rapidly—six or seven a week. Our teacher, though not one to shower us with praise, often hinted to our mom that we were something special. That’s how we got roped into serious piano training. Our love for the instrument has grown over time and has turned into a deep passion that has become a huge part of who we are.”

Joe has a deep interest in the Romantic period of music, with composers like Chopin and Rachmaninoff holding a special place in his heart. Spanning from 1830-1900, Romantic music differs from more traditional styles like Baroque (1600-1750) and Classical (1750-1820), primarily in its emphasis on emotion, expression and individualism. “While Baroque and Classical music often have limited forms and conventions, with a focus on balance, clarity and order, Romantic composers sought to break free from these constraints and explore the depths of human emotion in their music,” Joe said.

Ken goes for impressionistic music. “This is the era following the Romantic period, from 1890-1920, where composers like Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel explored new harmonic and tonal possibilities, breaking away from the conventions of the Romantic era,” Ken said. “Impressionistic music is characterized by its emphasis on mood, atmosphere and color, rather than traditional melody and form. I am fascinated by the dreamlike qualities of impressionist music, and immersing myself in all its essence is amazing.”

Joe said playing the piano isn’t just about producing music. Rather, it’s about experiencing life through sound and being born with perfect pitch adds an extra layer of depth to that experience. “While it’s a gift that allows me to observe the many nuances of music effortlessly, it also comes with its challenges,” he said. “For instance, it can be difficult to listen to someone singing or playing out of tune without feeling a sharp pang of discomfort. Yet, this heightened sensitivity to pitch extends beyond the piano, shaping my perception of everyday sounds in ways I may not always realize in the moment. From the hum of a refrigerator to the chirping of birds, my ears are constantly listening to the frequencies around me, silently detecting when a note is off by even a fraction of an amount. This really enriches my life in a way nothing else does.”

Ken said the piano isn’t just for playing—it’s a tool for music production, too. “By taking courses and diving into music production, being a pianist offers endless possibilities for crafting melodies, harmonies and textures across various genres. It’s my go-to instrument for composing,” Ken said. “I have also been diving into orchestral composition. Whether I’m creating original pieces or arranging covers, the piano serves as my creative hub, enriching my everyday life with what I can compose.”

Joe plays on a 1927 Steinway Model M piano; Ken prefers the 1999 Yamaha GH1 Grand Piano.

“My first time playing with an orchestra was very memorable, marking a significant milestone in my musical development,” Joe said. “At just 12 years old, I had the opportunity to perform Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor with the Chicago Arts Orchestra, featured on WFMT’s ‘Introductions’' radio program as part of the International Young Artist Concerto Competition. Collaborating with a full orchestra brought a new dimension to my playing as I discovered the interplay between soloist and ensemble with a new sense of artistry. Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to play with several professional orchestras in the U.S. and Italy.”

Ken said his first main stage experience at Carnegie Hall was “unforgettable.”

At age 9, they made their debut as winners of the American National Protégé Competition and performing at Carnegie Hall “was a dream come true, a moment I’ll cherish forever as a testament to years of dedication and hard work,” Ken said.

Joe has excelled in competitions such as the MYA-Walgreen Concerto Competition, SeJong Music Competition, Minnesota Concerto Competition and the Charleston International Piano Competition. He also has received an honorable mention in the Crain-Maling Foundation Chicago Symphony Orchestra Young Artists Competition and was a semi-finalist in the International Young Artist Concerto Competition, performing Rachmaninoff's Concerto No.3 with the SEEN Worldwide Orchestra in Chicago under conductor Conner Gray Covington in 2023. “I’ve also had the humble opportunity to play in masterclasses and lessons for renowned pianists like Antonio Pompa-Baldi, Dang Thai Son and Stanislav Ioudenitch, among others.”

Ken has excelled in competitions such as the Granquist Music Competition, Illinois Music Association festival, Bradshaw & Buono International Piano Competition, and the Seattle Bach Festival. In 2022, Ken won first prize in the senior division of the SeJong National Competition. Most recently, he won the 2nd prize in the DuPage Young Artists Audition. His notable orchestral appearances include performances with the Chicago Arts Orchestra and the TIMM Ensemble Orchestra in Todi, Italy.

“Preparing for national and international piano competitions is a rigorous and demanding process that requires dedication, multiple hours of practice every day, and (meticulous) attention to detail,” Joe said. “Months, and sometimes years, of preparation go into readying yourself for a mere 30 minutes on stage. Every aspect needs to be at its highest level, from technique and interpretation to stage presence and musicality. These high-level competitions often have strict requirements regarding the pieces that can be performed, typically spanning a range of musical styles and time periods. This makes it so competitors demonstrate their versatility and musical understanding across a diverse selection of works.”

Their most recent competition was the Music Teachers National Association competition, an event with three stages: it starts at the state level, moves to the divisional round and culminates in the national finals. “We entered as a piano duo and were thrilled to reach the finals in Atlanta after securing our first place wins in both the state and divisional level,” Joe said. “The experience was exhilarating—we met lots of people from the music industry and received great support from the crowd. After our performance, we gave out autographs and took pictures with members of the audience, which was one of the best feelings ever.”

They finished third, which was a significant achievement, Joe added.

This summer, the Gallwas brothers – both 16 and Elmhurst residents – will be in Hawaii to compete in the Aloha International Piano Festival. They also will be in the Chicago Symphony Young Artists Competition and the prestigious Chopin National Competition.

They have played piano as a duo and dueling.

“We performed at the Grand Park Music Festival as part of Joyce Yang’s ‘Play with Masters’ event and left a lasting impression with our performance at the Interlochen Piano Intensive Final Recital,” Joe said. “As twins, we share an unparalleled connection that enhances our performances, earning us first place in the Senior Duet Division of the Illinois State Music Teachers Association (ISMTA) competition (last) October.”

Said Joe: “My greatest strength on the piano is my technique. This encompasses elements such as finger dexterity, hand coordination, control of touch and dynamics, and the ability to execute complex passages with accuracy and fluidity. Through years of dedicated finger drills, practice and study, I’ve developed a solid technical foundation that enables me to tackle a wide range of repertoire with confidence and proficiency.”

Ken’s specialty lies in his passion for researching composers and understanding the emotions behind their music. “I can understand the stories and context of each piece, allowing me to connect deeply with the composer’s intentions. This dedication enhances my performances, enabling me to convey the true essence of the music and connect with audiences on an elevated level.,” he said.

So, does piano help in the sport of hockey?

Yes, they both said.

“Piano has taught me the importance of preparation. Just as every practice session counts in improving my piano skills and getting ready for competitions, the same applies to hockey,” Joe said. “I understand that consistent preparation and attention to detail are important for success in both fields.”

Ken said piano helps him manage the mental aspect of hockey. “Over the years, I’ve learned to control my nervousness when playing in piano competitions, and this experience translates directly to big games in hockey,” he said.

“Hockey is a surprising yet effective complement to piano playing, improving physical endurance. The strength and stamina used on the ice translate directly to the piano bench, enabling us to play physically demanding passages that often leave us drenched in sweat.”

Ken also plays the cello and Joe plays the violin in York’s orchestra.

In addition, they are hockey referees and both work on the ice rink staff at the YMCA in Elmhurst, coaching young children playing hockey in the community.


Favorite NHL Team: Vancouver Canucks
Favorite NHL Player: Quinn Hughes
Favorite Sports-themed Movie: Sandlot
Favorite TV Show: Friends
Favorite Pre-game Meal: Apple slices and a protein bar
Favorite app: Instagram
Celebrity You’d Like to Meet: Adam Sandler
Best Hockey Tip: “Crack one off the coconut” - Matt Goff
Best High School Uniform (other than York): Loyola


Favorite NHL Team: Edmonton Oilers
Favorite NHL Player: Connor McDavid
Favorite Sports-themed Movie: Miracle
Favorite TV Show: Friends
Favorite Pre-game Meal: Chipotle
Favorite app: Spotify
Celebrity You’d Like to Meet: Jennifer Aniston
Best Hockey Tip: “Hunt or be hunted” - Brian Finnerty
Best High School Uniform (other than York): Glenbrook South