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Pint-Size, but Grand on Piano By Nora Zamichow Times Staff Writer
Wed Jun 22, 7:55 AM ET
If a genie ever granted him three wishes, Marc Yu knows what he would want. He'd ask to play with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The New York Philharmonic. And he'd like to play at Carnegie Hall.
Marc plays Bach's Piano Concerto in F minor from memory. On cello, he glides through Vivaldi. He practices at least six hours a day.
He has memorized more than 15 works, including a piece more than 20 pages long. He has composed 10 short pieces. He is scheduled to play at the Ford Amphitheatre in Hollywood and to perform with the Capistrano Valley Symphony next month.
Marc is 6.
His grandparents, emigres from China, had wished Marc would play soccer and Game Boy and watch television. They had hoped he'd be, well, like other boys. And in some ways he is.
He loves spaghetti and meatballs. His favorite color is red. He likes to play hangman. He wears bluejeans and wire-rim glasses. When he thinks something is funny, he wrinkles his nose and flashes a wide, gaptoothed grin.
He stands 46 inches tall and weighs 40 pounds. His hands are too small to reach an octave on the piano. His legs are too short to reach the pedals — he uses a special extender. But when he plays, music pours effortlessly from the piano.
Marc is a prodigy. He began piano at age 3 and cello a year later.
"In Marc's case, he could be the next household-name pianist," said Jeffrey Bernstein, director of choral music at Occidental College and assistant conductor of the Pasadena Symphony. "Plenty of music majors at college don't have his facility at the keyboard. I believe anything is possible for him."
Bernstein met Marc when the boy and his mother, Chloe, began attending rehearsals of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony last fall. The 2 1/2 -hour sessions usually ended about 10 p.m. Marc sat rapt. After a few rehearsals, he asked Bernstein for a copy of the score. One night, he played a Mozart piece for Bernstein.
"It blew me away," the conductor recalled. "I never heard someone this accomplished at this age. It's startling."
History is punctuated by prodigies, children who perform at an adult level before age 10. Coached, everyone wonders, or born gifted?
"You really can't make a prodigy," said Ellen Winner, professor of psychology at Boston College. "Prodigies have a precocity and a rage to master — a very intense drive, a passion."
Prodigies learn not just faster but more independently than peers, Winner said.
But for these gifted children, a parent's role is also critical. In Marc's case, his mother's life is so entwined with his that they have practically braided into one.
"I don't know where he begins and she ends," said Suzanne Duarte Jones, Marc's kindergarten teacher. "But he's definitely a driven little boy."
Most prodigies don't become famous adults. In their teens, child prodigies often face a crisis. They are no longer pint-size musicians playing Mozart. Suddenly, peers have caught up.
"You're in a different world, and you're not as special as you once were," said Mac Randall, 33, a writer and former prodigy who started reading at age 2, began using a typewriter at 3 and wrote his first play when he was 4.
For every former child prodigy like cellist Yo-Yo Ma and violinist Sarah Chang, scores wash out. Some lead satisfying lives teaching or playing, and some quit.
Chloe, 33, knows the odds, but she believes that her boy will beat them. She remembers Marc turning to her when he was 3 and announcing that he wanted to be a musician; every step since then has been to achieve his goal.
Periodically, Marc awakens in the night. Sometimes it's because he has heard a new piece and can't sleep because he hungers to hear it again. He once woke Chloe at 4 a.m. saying he needed to practice a Bach prelude that he had just learned.
"Not too many people can be that persistent and dedicated," Chloe said. "With that attitude, I think he'll succeed."
What if he doesn't?
"Hmmm," she said. "I haven't really thought about that."
Marc may be destined for dorkhood. He has no interest in popular music. He scorns video games. And at his first recitals his mother dressed him in a pink suit — because a feng shui expert told her that pink, purple and red were Marc's lucky colors.
If you ask Marc about TV shows, he stares blankly. He does not watch television. At friends' houses, he sometimes turns off their sets and scolds them for watching too much.
But ask who his favorite painters are, and he rattles off three: Picasso, Kandinsky, Van Gogh.
In kindergarten, he would like to use earplugs for music class, but teachers won't let him. His hearing, he says, is so crucial that he doesn't want to risk possible damage while the boombox loudly plays children's songs and classmates sing and bang tambourines and drums. In Marc's world, this is not music, it is noise.
"Most kids like classical music," he said, "but unfortunately, they don't have the chance to learn it."
His idea of a treat? Playing the grand pianos at the Steinway store in West Los Angeles, though the piano at Nordstrom in Arcadia is nice too. Such excursions, however, make the upright Petrof in his Monterey Park home sound lackluster.
Marc says he has two best friends. They are both adults and musicians: Bernstein and his piano teacher, Steve Cook of the Colburn School of Performing Arts in downtown L.A.
He also likes his cello teacher, Jennifer Goss. When Marc played a phrase that sounded hollow to her, she asked: "Where has the music gone?"
Without blinking, he quipped, "To Las Vegas."
Marc and Chloe live in a tiny two-bedroom home with a stamp-sized lawn in Monterey Park, a largely Asian community eight miles east of downtown L.A.
On a recent morning, Marc got up about 6:30 a.m., took a hot shower and practiced about 45 minutes before eating breakfast.
As he played, Chloe held a metronome and sat in a desk chair by his side. Patiently and methodically, she asked him to practice certain passages of a Bach concerto. She directed him to play the difficult passages five times before moving on. They spoke to each other in Cantonese, the language Marc learned from birth.
After breakfast, Marc practiced an additional 90 minutes. As a reward, Chloe told him he could play the piece along with a CD. He beamed. She had several recordings from the library. Marc chose one.
On the keyboard, his tiny fingers galloped to keep pace. When the piece finished, he grinned, saying, "That was fun."
Told it was time for a break, Marc asked to play soccer in the yard. Despite several game attempts, he kept missing the ball when he tried headers. He kicked the ball for 10 minutes with little control but great enthusiasm.
Does he play on a team?
"Oh, no," his mother said. "That's far too dangerous."
How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Marc asked a visitor, abbreviating a Henny Youngman joke.
"Practice. Practice. Practice," he chortled, scrunching his nose.
The old saw has become a mantra for Marc, who practices six hours a day. Chloe is sensitive about this. Marc wants to practice, she says, and if anything, she has to make him stop. Piano practice sessions don't usually last more than two hours, and cello sessions are just 20 minutes to avoid possible hand strain.
Marc's regimen is extreme. Martin Chalifour, concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, says he started violin at age 4 but never practiced more than 75 minutes a week until he was 12.
Piano teacher Cook said Marc "practices an enormous amount by anyone's standards. His whole existence revolves around music and his love of music."
Cook teaches other 6-year-olds, but Marc is "quite an exceptional child," he said. "He assimilates what would take normal children weeks and weeks to learn."
Goss began teaching Marc cello two years ago when she broke her own rule about not starting children younger than 6. She agreed to teach Marc, in part, because Chloe said she would learn cello with her son.
Within six months, however, Marc had outpaced his mother. When he was 5, Goss recalled, he fell in love with Bach's suites for unaccompanied cello.
"That is really unusual," said the teacher, who was 13 when she first felt such passion about a composition. "He has an incredible ability to focus."
Marc knows that when he performs, most listeners are bowled over, and he expects attention. At a friend's party, Marc jumped on the piano amid the din of 35 people chatting. He angrily stopped when the talking didn't and ran into the backyard. When Chloe reached him, tears filled his eyes.
It's a party, not a concert hall.
It's music, they shouldn't talk.
Chloe, soft-spoken and petite, grew up in Macao in the Guangdong province of southern China. As a child, she begged her parents for piano lessons. Her father was a newspaper editor. He and her mother declined, believing that music lessons were frivolous.
"If my parents had been more supportive, I would have succeeded with music," she said. "I don't want to do to Marc what my parents did to me. If he likes music, I'll be as supportive as I can."
At age 17, she left for San Francisco, where she had relatives. She studied film production in college. Unable to find a job in her field, she was working as a blackjack dealer in a Las Vegas casino when she met a foreign securities investor who was considered a high roller. They dated for a year and a half before marrying.
The marriage didn't last. The couple separated when Marc was 3, and his father left the U.S.
By then, Chloe had sought out a piano teacher for her son, who had spontaneously picked out the melody for "Mary Had a Little Lamb" on a friend's piano. She approached Pamela Lam, an established instructor in Glendale. Lam declined. She believed the boy was too young.
Chloe was insistent, Lam recalled. The young mother persuaded Lam to give her son two 15-minute lessons a week. Chloe came and also took lessons. She would phone Lam with questions.
Marc, Lam discovered, was a quick learner. If she asked him to practice a piece, he memorized it. When she assigned him two pieces, he did all the pieces in his music book. Much of the motivation, Lam believed, sprang from Chloe.
"Honestly, I don't think he would have done it on his own," Lam said. "The mom was the one who really focused on lessons and would really follow through…. She was the inspiration."
Chloe used to tell Lam stories about prodigies and how their parents had always focused on them, the teacher recalled. "I think she wanted to be one of those moms."
Until February, Chloe and Marc lived with Chloe's in-laws. Not fans of classical music, they put Marc's piano in the garage and asked that he also practice cello there.
Today, Chloe is raising her son as a single mother. When her divorce is final, she expects to receive $800 in monthly child support. She does not work; she pays $500 a month for rent.
In January, Marc started taking private lessons in piano and cello at Colburn every Wednesday, skipping his usual kindergarten class.
Chloe also enrolled Marc in a tutoring program — where he studies math and English — every Friday evening.
She has devoted herself to nurturing Marc's intellect. She wakes early so she can read up on subjects in which he has expressed an interest. She carries a notebook so she can jot down his questions and find library books to help satisfy his curiosity. Recently, he asked her about 16th century Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel after spotting one of his paintings in a museum.
"He is curious about everything," she sighed. "Sometimes it's rough. I'll say, 'Can you wait? I'll study it.' "
Chloe has carved her life to suit Marc, giving up on romance, believing no man would want a relationship with a woman who has time only for her son. And she worries about the choices she's made on his behalf.
Last fall, in hope of finding a sponsor, Marc performed at people's homes and various recitals. He loved it. But today, Chloe regrets that she put him through this. No benefactor surfaced. And she now believes Marc should have been focused on improving as a musician rather than readying for performances.
Chloe, a Buddhist, prays for him when they wake in the morning and she looks at his tiny face. She prays again when they step into her car, heading for school. She prays before concerts and before she goes to sleep. And she believes in her heart that Marc will succeed.
Not everyone thinks her dedication is healthy. Strangers and the boy's father have scolded her for robbing Marc of his childhood because he practices so much. ("I don't make him practice; I have to make him stop," she says.) They have chastised her for not working. (A job, Chloe believes, would mean sacrificing Marc, and that is a price she's not willing to pay.)
She consoles herself with the thought that these outsiders don't know her or her son. They don't know that talented musicians, even young ones, must practice long hours. "Every minute counts, I think," she said. "I explain to [Marc] that, 'These are special years. Not everyone can play as you do. But it's a very competitive world out there. It's like a race. If you slow down, they'll catch up.' "
In the fall, Chloe plans to home-school her son because she wants the flexibility that would afford. This way, when he's preparing for a concert, she would not need to pull him out of first grade.
Where does Chloe imagine herself in 10 years?
"If I'm not lucky, I'll be old and ugly and wrinkled," she said. "If I'm lucky, my son will be going to play his debut at Carnegie Hall."
Mar 21st, 2010
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