Stillwater News Press

Local News

February 17, 2012

VIDEO: Stillwater violin prodigy gains international attention

STILLWATER, Okla. — A young Stillwater student will be performing at Carnegie Hall in New York as part of his first place win in an international contest.

Sylvan Zhang, 9, a Westwood Elementary third-grader, seems shy. He speaks with his violin. His talent is unmistakable.

Zhang competed in the 2012 American Protege International Piano and Strings Competition. And won.

Zhang entered by submitting recorded performances of Bach’s Partida No. 3, First Movement and Bruch’s Concerto No. 1, First Movement.

His father, Weili Zhang, admits he wasn’t sure his young son would win.

“I thought 50 percent for him to get it because I look at the winners from past years and I look at their YouTube website,” said Zhang. “They’re really talented, from different countries. But my oldest son, he said, ‘He can win’ because he has violin experience.”

Zhang’s eldest son, Sifan, 19, also plays the violin. He attends the University of Pennsylvania.

Sylvan studied the performance pieces diligently, his father said.

“One piece, the Bruch Concerto, he studied at least two months,” said Zhang. “And the other one, the Bach Partida, he spent a month before the recording.”

This month, the results came back.

“They emailed my dad,” said Sylvan. “It said that I was a first place winner of the competition.”

He said he felt “very happy” to hear the news.

Zhang said there won’t be time for sightseeing on the upcoming trip to New York and Carnegie Hall because the concert is on a Sunday night — they will have to fly back home to Oklahoma the next morning. However, this won’t be the last opportunity for Sylvan to see The Big Apple.

“He’s having another chance to play at Carnegie Hall in November,” said Zhang. “Only a few days back, he (won) another competition.”

Sylvan had also entered an Internet competition from American Protege. Contestants send links to video of them performing. Sylvan learned through email Saturday that he was chosen one of three finalists in the Young Musicians group.

“Last year, there (were) participants from 49 countries,” said Zhang.

Even though he began to practice violin at age 5, his interest in the instrument surfaced even earlier.

“When he was 3 years old, he listened to my oldest son and watched my oldest son play and was interested,” said Zhang. “And, then some of my friends gave him a gift. It was actually a toy guitar. He thought that it was a violin. He told us, ‘That’s my violin and I’m going to play it.’ And then when he was ready (at) five and a half (years old), we sent him to Mr. Halleck.”

Sylvan remained under the tutelage of Melon Halleck for a few months. As expected for beginners, Sylvan struggled a bit at first.

“The first couple months, there’s some difficulties,” said Zhang. “Rhythm, the dynamic and the intonation, everything. And then after two months, he’s getting really good and really fast.”

He eventually sought instruction under Laura Talbott, an associate professor of violin and viola at Oklahoma State University.

“Dr. Talbott is an excellent professor and she’s really known in violin and viola performance,” said Zhang. “She was a teacher for my (oldest) son, Sifan. And then, that’s a chance to get Sylvan to study with her and she really knows exactly what the kids are supposed to do playing violin. She encouraged, every time he plays, every point, every piece and she knows everything professionally: intonation, dynamic ... ”

He said Talbott encouraged Sylvan to compete. Sylvan has won numerous awards including overall winner and violin winner at the Keith String Competition in the 2010 Oklahoma Music Olympics and winning the violin primary at the Oklahoma Federation of Music Club Playoff in April 2009. He has also performed at OSU functions and area churches and organizations. At 9, he is a part of the OSU String Academy Chamber Orchestra and the OSU Eyes-on-Me Orchestra.

Sylvan said he doesn’t have a favorite piece of music. He just enjoys playing. He said he thinks he can get better, too.

“The most important thing, I think, for him to pick (it) up fast, also the success, the little success at this point, he’s very much interested,” said Zhang. “He takes violin as a toy. Whenever he gets (a) chance, he plays. That’s most important, in my opinion.”

Zhang said Sylvan will continue to play every day, even after finishing an assignment.

Sylvan said he wants to grow up and become a professional musician. His father said he won’t push him in any certain direction.

“I will support whatever his decision when he’s growing up,” said Zhang. “This is a good path for him and he’s also good in other subjects like math, science.”

Zhang said it’s a great honor for Sylvan, at such a young age, to be able to play in New York’s famed Carnegie Hall.

“I’m very happy and very proud of him,” said Zhang.

Sylvan will perform at Will Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall on March 11 at 8 p.m.

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