Upbeat teen tunes out stress with piano success - SanTan Sun News SanTan Sun News

Upbeat teen tunes out stress with piano success

December 11th, 2017 development
Upbeat teen tunes out stress with piano success

A Chandler teenager who beat a life- threatening illness as a child is finding his life in harmony now as he racks up prizes at piano competitions in the Valley and around the country.
Samuel Xu, 16, is on a high note after winning and taking second place in so many piano competitions over the last several years that it’s hard for him to remember the details of them all.
Samuel got off to a rough start in life. He was diagnosed at 4 with aplastic anemia, a serious disorder that stops the body from producing enough new blood cells.
Healthy now, Samuel said piano competitions require intense preparation and focus, but on a daily basis he thinks mostly about how much he loves playing rather than the judging and rivalry he will face at contests.
A junior at the online Arizona Virtual Academy, Samuel has been playing the piano since he was 5.
He won the International Institute for Young Musicians International Piano Competition and a $10,000 prize in 2015. He has also won the Arizona State Music Teachers National Association Junior Piano Competition, the Arizona Young Artist Piano Competition, the Steinway Avanti Star Piano Competition and the Arizona Musicfest Youth Piano Competition.
He played a solo, on stage by himself for half an hour, in concert through MusicaNova Orchestra’s Young Artists concert series in September. Last year he performed a solo major with the MusicaNova Orchestra.
He got first place in division three (for high school juniors and seniors) in the Arizona Musicfest’s 17th Annual Young Musicians Competition last month.
“The nature of playing an instrument is not necessarily competing,” Samuel said. “It’s a pretty personal experience, especially as you learn to develop with the instrument. It’s like another language. It also expresses emotions.”
Samuel was focused intently as he played songs on a piano at home recently in a seemingly effortless manner and talked animatedly about some of his favorite composers – Ludwig van Beethoven, Frédéric Chopin and Maurice Ravel.
His father, Fei Xu, a former professional pianist from China, teaches him as well as other students through New Century Conservatory. He and his wife, Hong Zhu, own the music school and operate it out of their house.
Samuel said he is “really thankful” he won the top prize at the international competition in Kansas, which drew pianists ages 12 to 18 from around the United States, as well as China, Australia and other countries.
“That competition was fun,” he said. “Obviously, it’s nervous because it was my first time doing a competition like that. It’s just preparing early. You’ve got to have a certain set of repertoires.
I chose some of the pieces I like. All competitions are basically performance. You’ve got to focus.”
In order to compete in the event, young musicians also must first submit a recording of themselves playing. Pianists perform in preliminary, semi-final and final rounds at the event.
As part of the international competition in Kansas, Samuel and the other students also participated in a music camp for two weeks, living in the dorms.
“Camp was good,” he said. “It was intense. You have lessons. You have master classes. There were performances every night. That experience was a chance to kind of bond with each other.”
Samuel said many of his friends are also young musicians as he does not interact on a regular basis face-to-face with his classmates at Arizona Virtual Academy.
He takes five classes a day in the week. Students can ask questions and chat online with their peers and if they miss a class, can watch the recorded version later. Books, science laboratory supplies and other materials are delivered to their homes.
The flexibility of the online school is ideal for Samuel so he can practice the piano while keeping up with his class work.
He said he can take a break from homework to practice piano when he feels refreshed and not have to miss classes to practice the piano or enter competitions, as he would if he attended a brick-and-mortar school.
Samuel typically plays the piano three to four hours a day. The online school format also makes it easier for students to concentrate, his father said.
“It’s hard to get distracted,” Fei said. “That’s one of the advantages.”
Samuel’s parents enrolled him in the online school at a doctor’s recommendation when he was diagnosed with aplastic anemia, which leaves people feeling fatigued and with a greater risk of getting infections and uncontrolled bleeding.
“He kept getting sick,” Fei said. “The immune system stopped working. It was a life-threatening condition.”
Samuel remembers being hooked up to an IV station at home to get chemotherapy at home before he had a bone marrow transplant.
But the treatment did not bother him. Rather, seeing the evil character Cruella de Vil in the “101 Dalmatians” cartoon he was watching at the time. “traumatized me,” he said.
When he was almost 4, Samuel got a bone marrow transplant with his older sister, Gina Xu, who is now 19, as the donor. Luckily for the family, she was a “perfect match,” Fei said.
“After the bone marrow transplant, things started to stabilize,” he added. “He’s very determined.
He never complained. We are really blessed.”
The sky has been the limit for Samuel, who said his father coaches him, offering guidance throughout the day on piano.
When he was 12, Samuel won in his age division, at the 2013 Music Teachers National Association Junior Piano Competition held at Arizona State University. He said the event was “definitely exciting” and he had a chance to meet impressive ASU music professors.
Also at ASU, Samuel participated in and won the Arizona Young Artist Piano Competition a few times, he first time when he was 9. He said it’s a fun competition, where he sees many “familiar faces.”
Samuel took first place at the Steinway Avanti Star Piano Competition, facing out-of-state judges, and he earned second-place honors two other times at the event.
He said when he was 14 he won the Arizona Musicfest Youth Piano Competition in his age division in the Valley and he has also earned second- place in that contest twice. Just last month, he got first place in division three at the Musicfest competition. Samuel participates in that event every year.
Performing last year with MusicaNova Orchestra was a thrilling experience, he said.
“I got to learn a lot and develop a lot of new skills,” Samuel said. “Everybody is integrated into one style of playing. You kind of have to be a team player.
He said he also loved playing Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F major in that concert as “he’s an exciting composer.”
“At an early age, I would listen to his music,” Samuel said.
Warren Cohen, musical director of the MusicaNova Orchestra, loved working with Samuel.
“Working with Samuel was a joy,” Cohen said. “He is extremely musical and sensitive, and of course has marvelous training and a first-rate technique, and he is a delightful young man. I couldn’t ask for a better soloist!”
Samuel said he hopes to become a professional pianist, as his father was before becoming a piano teacher. His goal is to get accepted to Eastman School of Music – University of Rochester in New York, The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia or another well-respected music school.
Fei went to the Central Conservatory of Music, a world-renowned school in China.
A fan of various musical genres, Samuel even likes film scores, hip-hop and indie-style music. He said he loves the piano because compared to other instruments it is “more flexible.”
“You play with two hands,” Samuel said. “You have more control over different melodies. You could play both par s. You can have a lot going on with that.”