Smile Politely

Champaign contains a little prodigious piano talent

Just want to take a second to restate the tagline: 7 year-old David Wang returns to Carnegie Hall next week. For the second time. The first being just 6 weeks ago on April 23rd, as the 2nd place winner of American Protégé International Piano & Strings competition (ages 5-10 category). He entered another competition and placed 1st in the American Fine Arts Festival’s (AFAF) Golden Era of Romantic Music International Competition, for which he’ll be returning to Carnegie Hall to perform on June 11th. As a huge supporter of youth arts education, I knew I had to take the opportunity to meet this vastly talented young man. 

Excited eyes peeked through the waist-high window near the front door, and began bouncing up and down while we both waited for his mother to answer my knock. Introductions were made, and David continued hopping on his toes while I shook hands with his parents and moved inside to the living room to sit and chat with the pianist and his family. In the corner was a small grand piano, with a cello nearby.

Not even a little shy, David and his little sister Julianne rolled and played on the couch while answering a few preliminary questions. No, his stuffed lion did not have a name; Julianne just started taking ballet, which he also studies; and yes, David just turned 7 but he won his competitions while he was still 6, and had only begun studying piano at age 5 and a half. I also learned that the cello is also his, and he has recently begun to pick up the guitar.

That might strike some readers as an overscheduled kid, but it was clear right away that David truly loves music and has made his own choices about how he spends his time. When I asked him what made him decide to play piano, he looked away, thought, then looked back at me with wide eyes and said, “I got inspired.” When asked to elaborate, he said he had heard his mother playing, and wanted to learn. Dude didn’t know it, but he scored so many points right then, because apparently this was news to his mom, Connie Shih. She blushed and laughed and thanked her son and immediately deflected. His dad reminded him of seeing a movie — The Legend of 1900, about a piano prodigy – which also had a big emotional impact on David as a young(er) child, and may have contributed to his interest in the instrument.

But David’s family is a musical one, to be sure. Connie admitted to beginning piano lessons at the age of 5, back in Taiwan, but said her teacher was so strict that she felt like it was burdensome, like homework, and quit by the age of 10. She still loved music, however, and during high school she joined Guitar Club as an extracurricular, and it reignited her passion for music. It’s also where she met her husband, Bryan Wang, who still plays acoustic guitar as a hobby, mostly instrumental solo pieces, “New Age style”, he says.

Bryan told me the story of how they discovered David’s aptitude for music. One day he was using power tools outside. Connie chimed in, saying David was around 3 years old, and told them that the drill was “making a D.” They were confused until the tool’s pitch changed and the toddler went on to say, “Now it’s an E!” They realized that he could discern the notes on the scale even though he hadn’t been formally studying music.

David’s “good ear” has contributed to his success, and Connie praises his piano teacher, Robin Scott, for adjusting her teaching style to the way David learns. Whenever Ms. Scott feels David is ready to move on to a new piece, she plays a selection of pieces for him, and lets him pick out what he likes best. Instead of feeling challenged or overwhelmed, this helps David feel excited about tackling the piece. His mother marveled, “I feel that when he likes the song, he has the confidence. He just says he can do it.” David demonstrated this attitude when we talked about his current project: a piece by Chopin, which to my untrained eyes looks quite complicated. He assured me that it’s easy because he already knows all the scales, so he can already play all the notes. Apparently, he’s not wrong – check out the video below. 

Inquietude from Bryan Wang on Vimeo.

That’s not even the piece that won him both recitals at Carnegie, although it is what Connie sent to her mother in Singapore. David’s grandmother has a friend who is a professional pianist, and that friend knew about some international competitions which take video entries. Recognizing his talent, his grandmother urged his parents to enter him. When they asked him if he wanted to enter, just for fun, his answer was a casual, “Why not? Let’s try it!” The family didn’t have any expectations, since he’d only been playing for a little over a year, and kept the entire experience very low-pressure. Ms. Scott helped him pick out a new piece to play, Dolly’s Dreaming by Oesten, and the family videotaped him at the University of Illinois for his submission video. 

Placing second in the American Protégé competition awarded David his first Carnegie recital, a prospect that left him very nervous because he was the very first performer. Says the young pianist, “I really needed to calm down, I needed to be ready and be brave, but since I was the first one, I didn’t have time.” Even short on time, David took comfort in a book he’d brought with him, The Cricket in Times Square, a book that is so perfect for a musician on his first trip to New York that I am jealous I wasn’t the library professional who recommended it. When asked if he’d be nervous at the next concert, his reply was a confident, “It’s fine as long as I’m not the first one again,” followed quickly by a plaintive, “Am I the first one?” to his parents. They reassured him, but told him realistically that they would not know until later.

His upcoming recital is only one of the awards he’ll receive as a first place winner for the AFAF: he’s also receiving a scholarship to a summer study program in Europe during 2017, an opportunity his family thinks will be very good for him. There will be a 10-day tour of Europe with private lessons daily, culminating in a recital at the Schumann Museum in Germany. David’s parents are glad the trip happens next year, when he’ll be a little older, but he is actually already an international traveler. “I’ve been to Taiwan, New York, Colorado, California, and Malaysia. I thought it was going to be totally different, but everything was just like home. The buildings all look the same.” I guess Europe will have to bring its A-game to impress this one.

Throughout the conversation, David seemed happy, excited, silly, and bored by turn. After all, there were plenty of parts where the grownups talked more easily, so he had to count to 60 when I told him I would have another question “in a minute.” The second most memorable thing about his trip to New York was buying a fire truck toy, followed closely by visiting relatives. We talked for almost a half hour about what kind of dog he might buy this year, if he wins any more prize money and if his parents let him. When asked about pursuing music when he grows up, he replied that he either wants to play piano or be an engineer. He added, “I made two wishes for the New Year: to go to Carnegie Hall and to build a robot. I think they both came true because I got the LEGO robot I wanted.”

Sounds like a pretty good year to me. 

About Rebecca Knaur…

As Arts Editor for Smile Politely, rk would cop to stealing all the best interviews for herself, and she didn’t even offer this one up because of her strong belief in arts education for youth. If you want the chance to meet cool artists and go to shows for free in exchange for writing about it, email her

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