Alan Shi plays the first prelude of George Gershwin's Three Preludes
When Alan Shi was 4, he strutted up to the piano for his first-ever public recital ... then promptly ran over to his mother, Judy Wu, tearfully telling her he didn't want to perform.
After calming down, he went back up to the piano and nailed his piece.
Afterward, those in attendance repeatedly told him they were glad he performed.
So was he.
And that decision - and the work he's put into playing the piano since then - will pay off this week when Shi plays for a national radio audience.
He'll be one of five young piano players featured in a taping of National Public Radio's "From the Top," hosted by concert pianist Christopher O'Riley. The taping will be at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Lied Center.
Shi, 14, will join Sean Yeh, 16, from Libertyville, Ill., Dominic Cheli, 15, from St. Charles, Mo., and Anna Han, 12, from Chandler, Ariz., on the show, which will air at 9 a.m. Nov. 9 on Kansas Public Radio.
"We get between 1,000 and 2,000 applications per year, from which we choose performers for only 20 radio programs and 13 television episodes," says Caroline Cardiasmenos, assistant music producer for the show. "We always like to include one or more local performers from the region we're visiting; it's not always possible, but it's what we aim for. Alan Shi is one of the strongest pianists who applied for our show from the area.
"Beyond music, he's a wonderful representative of Lawrence and Kansas more generally, having been a past champion in state chess and oratory competitions."
Music from before birth
Wu met her son's first piano teacher before he was even born. While pregnant with Alan, she met Sue Kwak, who taught Alan until two years ago when she moved away. Kwak, the wife of former Kansas University faculty member Nowhan Kwak, introduced Wu to the Suzuki method after talking to her at a function for KU's physics and astronomy department. The method, pioneered by Shinichi Suzuki and used by teachers worldwide, is based in the belief that all children possess ability and that ability can be developed and enhanced through a nurturing environment.
"I was very, very influenced by this because earlier I thought, I'm a physicist, my kids will probably never have talent for music," says Wu, a physics professor who began playing music for Shi in the womb and when he was young, to work music into his environment. "So with that, we started Alan when he was just about 4. He loves music."
That's not to say it's always been an easy thing, though.
Four years after that tearful breakdown at the piano bench, Shi faced another decision. At that age, 8, he didn't want to be the kid who stayed inside and practiced the piano. He wanted to run around with his friends, not go up and down the scales. He again went to his mother.
"The first few years, it was a trouble to sit down at the piano when other kids are playing outside," says Wu, his mother. "I said, 'Well, you know, it's got to be that you love something or otherwise don't do it. You don't have to do it. If it's not something you really, really want, don't do it.'
"But he said, 'I really love it, mom.'"
Shi, who will be a ninth-grader at Southwest Junior High School in the fall, couldn't remember or imagine a life without the piano and stayed with it.
"When I was asked that question by my mom when I was 8, I thought about it for several days. I realized I just couldn't quit because piano was just so interesting," Shi says. "I think I might have picked up something I else - I can't just replace piano with just playing (outside)."
After Kwak's move, Shi and his younger sister, Ting Ting, 8, auditioned for the Park University Youth Music Conservatory program in Parkville, Mo. Both were welcomed into the program and have been training once per week with teacher Marina Sultanova.
"My piano teacher, she had to go somewhere for the summer, but before that she had lessons with me every single day before she went," Shi says. "She's a really good teacher. She did that for free."
The hourlong Friday drives from Lawrence to Parkville have paid off, though, with Shi's appearance on a show he says he's ecstatic to appear on.
"I was really surprised. I didn't think I was that good as many of the people, I guess, who auditioned," Shi says. "I guess I feel honored to be chosen to go do this."