Gregory Pershing understands the connections between music and mathematics. An award-winning jazz pianist and math prodigy, he gets how black notes on white paper define melody and rhythm.

But Pershing is happiest playing outside that structure, where unexpected diversions draw laughter from knowing audience members and inspire fellow musicians to answer with their own interpretations of a composition. He calls it “messing around.”

“I love the improvisation part – the idea of being able to express yourself moment to moment,” said Pershing, 18. “You understand the notes on the page and then get to play what sounds good to you. There’s a certain comedy to it. It’s a fun back-and-forth experience.”

Pershing, who is Greely High School’s valedictorian, started playing music when he was 5. He took classical lessons first, then expanded to jazz a few years later. The transition came naturally.

“I was losing interest, and I just started messing around on our keyboard and making stuff up,” he said.

He began writing down his compositions two years ago and debuted his first piece at this year’s Maine high school jazz festival. Greely’s jazz combo won a gold medal performing “Basis,” and Pershing took home a Dale Huff Award for most outstanding musicianship among Division 1 combos, which he also won in 2017.

“I was super nervous,” he said. “I worked on it so long. I always felt the melody could be more interesting, but then so many people said they liked the piece that it made me feel more confident about it.”

Pershing, who lives in Cumberland, won additional outstanding musicianship awards throughout high school, was named to the District 2 Honors Jazz Band all four years, and was tagged Maine Jazz All-State pianist in 2017 and 2018. He performs professionally in a funk/jazz quartet, Groove Tyranny, with his older brother, Harry, a saxophonist, and two friends.

In academics, Pershing started studying advanced math in third grade and completed the high school’s top math class as a sophomore. He took three additional college-level math courses through Stanford University online and at the University of Southern Maine. He was co-captain of Greely’s math team and a member of the state math team all four years, a national math olympiad qualifier in 2017 and a Presidential Scholar in 2018.

Pershing, who plans to study music and math at Columbia University in New York, said he’s grateful to his family, piano instructors and fellow musicians for helping him along the way.

“I’ve been so lucky to know and work with a lot of great musicians,” he said.

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