He’s traveled to piano competitions around the country, from New York City to San Diego. Last summer, he was invited to play in Vienna. And he’s performed at Carnegie Hall — twice.
While this list of accomplishments may look like the résumé of a musician with decades of experience, it belongs to freshman Garman Xu.
In 2019, Xu won a trophy at the Music Teachers’ Association of California (MTAC) Sierra Fall Festival in San Diego in the age 14-15 division and placed first in the Category C, age 13-15 subdivision of the California Association of Musical Teachers District V Honors Competition.
He also performed Chopin’s “Fantaisie” at the Crescendo International Competition at Carnegie Hall on Jan. 12, 2019. (Xu performed at Carnegie Hall for the same competition in sixth grade.)
Xu said his performance at Carnegie Hall was for a large audience in a “famous” building with an especially “nice and expensive” piano.
“While I can still improve more, it was a good morale booster,” he said.
After that performance, Xu was invited to the International Student Exchange Program in Vienna over the summer.
He was unable to travel to Vienna due to scheduling conflicts but played at a variety of locations on the East Coast in January and March instead.
Xu said his performance in Boston also stood out due to the location.
“I played right behind a giant glass wall overlooking the sea, so that was pretty cool,” Xu said.
Despite his busy schedule, Xu still performs at Country Day. He joined the Jazz Band and soloed at the annual Rockvember Fest on Nov. 8, when his rendition of “Prokofiev Gavotte Op. 12, No. 2” by Sergey Prokofiev and “Étude Op. 10, No. 12” by Chopin earned him first place.
But Xu’s musical journey started years earlier. He began taking lessons when he was 6, but his mother, a recreational piano player, introduced Xu to the instrument even before then. His younger brother started lessons when he was just 5.
Over his eight years of piano, Xu has taken lessons from three teachers.
The first was Todd Walker, a jazz and blues pianist in the Rocklin area, who taught Xu for two years.
During that time, Xu learned notes and basic rhythms in a recreational setting.
“I enjoyed it, but after I played for a while, I wanted a challenge, so I began learning classical pieces by myself after listening to them on the radio,” Xu said.
Xu’s adoration of composers such as Mozart influenced him to pursue classical music, so his family searched for a classical teacher.
When a few friends recommended Tatiana Scott in Sacramento, Xu decided to take a lesson from her and ultimately stayed with her for two years.
Xu said Scott helped him build his technique and the “mindset” of a classical pianist. His lessons lasted an hour every week.
She also encouraged him to start playing competitively when he was 8 and recommended the Certificate of Merit (CM) program from MTAC, which trains students in performance, technique, ear training, sight-reading and music theory.
To join MTAC, students must have a teacher who is a member of the organization, register online, pay an exam fee and pass the test.
The annual program involves approximately 30,000 students in piano, violin, cello, viola, flute, French horn, oboe, clarinet, saxophone, bassoon, baritone/euphonium horn, voice and harp, according to MTAC’s website.
Each instrument has its own 10- or 11-level syllabus with a specific set of requirements; the piano program has 10. Teachers decide the appropriate beginning level, then students participate in an annual evaluation between mid-February and April.
Xu began at level four due to his previous piano instruction.
During the statewide assessment — which Xu said he takes at California State University, Sacramento — students complete a written theory exam with an ear-training component and perform in front of a panel of judges.
“You have to study music history — the biography and style of composers in different periods, like Beethoven and Chopin,” Xu said. “You also have to learn music composition, or how to use scales or chords to inflict certain emotions.”
To prepare, Xu said his teacher used official guidebooks and practice tests.
Students later receive an official MTAC CM Certificate for their level. They may advance a level or remain at the same level for the next year depending on their results.
Xu passed level 10 last year, so he’s currently “freelancing,” pursuing pieces that interest him rather than pieces from a certain curriculum. He said he enjoyed the MTAC system.
“The stuff you learn from it is really valuable, and I think you should take it if you’re serious about music, not just piano,” he said.
As Xu advanced through levels, he became eligible for a variety of competitions, starting in Sacramento and Folsom. His results and his teacher’s connections allowed him to find slots in bigger competitions.
While attending competitions, Xu discovered that many of his competitors attended the Pacific Institute of Music (PIOM) in Folsom.
“They said it was really good, so we decided to try it,” he said.
This led Xu to Carol Chuang, a PIOM teacher with whom he’s taken lessons for over three years.
PIOM instructors primarily have master’s or doctorate degrees in music performance, according to the organization’s website.
Xu now practices an hour and a half per week at PIOM. He spends another hour and a half per day practicing alone.
At a rate of one page of sheet music a day, memorizing a piece can take him one or two weeks, depending on its length and difficulty.
“When I’m playing the pieces I like to play, it’s fun,” Xu said. “Right now, I’m digging Chopin, as well as a lot of Liszt. I’m playing his ‘Liebesträume,’ and I really like that.”
Xu added that there is a big difference between being taught in a group at a school and privately at home.
“It’s much more diverse (at a school),” Xu said. “You can witness all these students practicing their instruments just by walking around.”
Besides his lessons and practice, Xu plays piano for PIOM’s chamber group, which he joined about two months ago, and for the Jazz Band.
Xu practices an additional hour per week at PIOM for his chamber group after his teacher recommended it to him.
He is currently accompanied by a cellist and violinist, but the combination depends on the piece. The group has yet to attend a competition.
“I’ve done concertos with orchestras or other piano players before as a side job under my second teacher, but this is different,” Xu said. “In concertos, the sound of the orchestra can drown you out, but here I really have to work on coordinating.”
Though Xu said he has little knowledge of jazz, he decided to join the Jazz Band because he was interested in learning more about the genre.
“Jazz is completely different — it’s more improvisation- and scale-based, whereas classical music is based on interpretation and very precise in its notes,” he said.
Band director Bob Ratcliff agreed, adding that while classical music focuses on playing sheet music as accurately as possible, jazz pieces do not sound correct when played exactly as they are written.
“It’s not as if the two (styles) don’t complement each other, but sometimes they get in each other’s way,” Ratcliff said. “If you play a classical piece with a jazz feel, it doesn’t work. If you play a jazz piece with a classical feel, it doesn’t work.”
Thus, he said Xu can improve his knowledge of the music theory in jazz: the chord voicings — where notes are placed in each chord — and the scales.
Nevertheless, Ratcliff said Xu learns quickly.
“He is doing a great job, especially because it’s something he’s never done before,” he said. “He’s a good pianist, which is great because he picks up on stuff very quickly.”
Ratcliff added that Xu’s experience with concertos aids his timing, which helps his performance in the band.
“I often get piano players that are used to playing by themselves, so their idea of a steady beat is nebulous,” Ratcliff said.
In jazz, the piano is part of the rhythm section, which is responsible for a steady beat.
“If you’ve got a pianist who doesn’t keep steady time, it can be really detrimental to the feel,” Ratcliff said. “But Garman’s got a solid sense of time.”
Despite his years of training, Xu said he still faces obstacles during performances.
At the MTAC Sierra Fall Festival last November, Xu had a slight fever. However, his performance of “Prokofiev Gavotte Op. 12, No. 2” and “Étude Op. 10, No. 12” still earned him a trophy.
Xu added that the music itself can also be challenging.
“The Liszt pieces are pretty hard, with a bunch of technique and crazy stuff, and the trios from chamber require lots of communication with other players,” he said.
Xu said he wants to add to his repertoire and his knowledge of music composition.
“There’s always something you can improve on, either your interpretation or your execution,” he said.
Furthermore, playing a certain piece for an extended period of time can cause Xu to feel “bored,” he said.
Nevertheless, he said the players he’s met and the skills he’s learned are worth the time and effort.
Xu said he is uncertain if he wants to attend a conservatory after high school or play professionally. He said he may even teach piano to others.
“I will never stop playing music for enjoyment, no matter which path I decide to take,” he said.
—By Héloïse Schep
Originally published in the March 17 edition of The Octagon