At the age of 3, most children are shaking tambourines or banging on toy drums.
However, this wasn’t the case for sophomore Atsuo Chiu.
That’s when Chiu took his first piano lesson, and this year, at 15, he performed in his third concert at Carnegie Hall in New York City.
Chiu’s most recent performance was on March 13.
To qualify, he sent in a DVD of himself playing Brahms’s Op. 118 No. 3 to the Concert Festival International Competition in January.
He won the competition.
Chiu played the same piece at Carnegie Hall.
Chiu’s father said that Chiu began playing so early because his parents noticed that he loved music.
In addition, Chiu said his parents wanted him to start playing because their friends’ children, most of them older than Chiu, were playing.
One of these was sophomore Nina Dym, who admits that Chiu is now a far better player.
“I never put in nearly as much work as he has,” Dym said.
Chiu’s piano teacher, Shigemi Nishite, who has been teaching Chiu since 2006, agreed with Dym.
“He is an extremely hard worker,” Nishite said. “He has talent, but his hard work makes that talent shine.”
At the age of 6, Chiu played simple songs that weren’t traditional pieces, completing six volumes of a piano book called “Step by Step.”
“My teacher at the time stressed the basics,” he said. “She said, ‘If you don’t have a good foundation, then you won’t be good.’”
However, at 10, Chiu had finally established that good foundation.
That’s when he played his first Chopin piece and entered his first piano competition, sponsored by the Japanese Piano Teachers Association of Greater Sacramento.
Chiu said it was a “baby competition” held in Davis in front of a group of Japanese piano teachers.
There were 20 competitors who were all around the same age as Chiu, including Dym.
Chiu played Chopin’s Waltz in E minor.
And he placed first.
At this moment, Chiu said, he began to love the piano.
“I started practicing more,” Chiu said. “After I won the Davis competition, I got more confident in my playing skills. I wanted to compete again.”
Today, Chiu has attended 12 competitions, in cities including New York City, San Francisco and Oakland.
And all that competing requires a lot of practice.
Chiu said he practices every day for one to two hours with Nishite, unless it’s a recording session when the practice can be up to three hours long.
Recording sessions occur when there is a competition that requires a video audition in the future.
“My teacher and I record tapes and listen to them to make sure that they sound perfect,” he said.
In addition, Chiu spends time practicing at home.
“At home I practice for maybe three hours a week,” he said. “But at home it’s mostly listening to my performances and thinking about how (to play) better. It’s more of a mental practice.”
Chiu said that he listens for the way that he makes the music, which includes dynamics, phrasing, special rhythms and tones of the notes.
“I sit and listen to the recordings and follow along with the music in front of me,” he said.
Nishite said that Chiu needs to improve in some areas.
“Expression is always evolving,” she said. “As he matures both personally and musically, he will learn to listen to his music, become more flexible in his expression and allow his music to sing.”
The most important piano competitions in which Chiu has participated are the American Protegé, the American Fine Arts Festival and the Concert Festival International Competition.
All three were international competitions that required a video recording to be sent.
At these competitions there are people from all around the world, including people from China, Japan, Spain, Italy, France and more. There are also several judges in the process, and they look for small details such as musical expression, technique and style, Chiu said.
The first time he played at Carnegie Hall, Chiu submitted his recording of Chopin’s Études Op. 10 No. 12 to the American Protegé in early February 2015.
He said he made over 50 recordings of the piece before choosing the one he wanted to send.
Nevertheless, when Chiu heard back from the judges he was completely shocked.
They loved his music.
“They said that they liked how I expressed myself in the piece I played,” Chiu said.
“They said it was different from how other people would play it. I put a lot of expression into the piece that fit with what I think the composer was trying to say.”
However, in the past not all of the judges have liked Chiu’s style, he said.
“It’s about what the judge likes, pretty much,” he said. “But these big competitions have (many) judges, around 10. (There are also) stages of evaluations, so it becomes less biased.”
These 10 judges listen to the initial piece.
His first place in the American Protegé garnered him his first invitation to Carnegie Hall.
Last May, Chiu performed there for his first time.
Six months later, Chiu was invited to Carnegie Hall again after winning first place in the American Fine Arts Festival, for which he submitted a DVD of Chopin’s Études Op. 10 No. 12.
Playing at Carnegie Hall the second time was different, according to Chiu.
“I was really nervous the first time I played there,” he said. “The second time it wasn’t that bad, but I was still nervous.”
Chiu said that the first time his whole body was shaking and he was sweating nonstop.
In addition, the stage lights were really hot.
There were over 250 people watching him, and he wasn’t used to performing in front of that many people.
Chiu says the trick is to let the nervousness pass.
“I sit down and wait for myself to stop shaking,” he said. “Then I start playing, and I’m fine.”
Chiu said that there are certain things that make being a musician especially hard.
“The hardest thing is that the music is never perfect,” Chiu said. “And the second you release the keys, the sound disappears.”
Nishite said she sees a bright future for Chiu, even if he doesn’t pursue a career in music.
“By studying piano, Atsuo is developing skills that he can use in any endeavor he so chooses,” Nishite said.
—By Annya Dahmani