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When Harry Chiang plays the piano, his face becomes serene, as if he has grasped the wisdom of the piece. While his fingers move up and down the octaves and his body heaves underneath a tiny vest and dress shirt, you tend to forget that he's only 5 years old.
In between rounds of Pokémon video games and Lego building sessions, the Great Neck kid plays complex pieces like Bach's Invention--usually avoided by anyone whose age has not yet gone well into the double digits.
"He's a very smart boy," says his teacher, Noel Lin. He has an uncanny ability to understand the emotion of each piece he plays, not to mention that he has perfect pitch, "pianist's hands--very wide open between his fingers and good concentration for his age," she says.
Harry wowed the audience and New York Observer music columnist Charles Michener when he performed at a benefit concert for the Music Festival of the Hamptons last summer--taking the stage right before piano great Lukas Foss, the festival director. That was just after Harry won first place in the Queens College Young Performers Cultural Heritage Competition.
So do we have a prodigy in our midst? Well...
"Many people use this word for talented children...," Lin says with some hesitation and a slight giggle. "I would say he's very talented--but my standards are different."
They are indeed. And that's why this tale is as much about the teacher as the pupil. Some people would call every one of Lin's 10 students prodigies: They're kids from 4 to 15 who demonstrate remarkable ability and dedication to the piano. They hop one by one into her Great Neck home, a lavish space furnished with three grand pianos and a coffee table topped with a bowl of lollipops for her young disciples.
"I think I'm much more selective because I still perform," says Lin, 41, whose main career is doing solo concerts. She takes only those students who possess a supreme amount of talent and passion--as well as emotionally and financially supportive parents. "Some teachers need to teach many students for a living," she says. "I have the opportunity to select the best."
Lin began her own musical training in her native Taiwan, encouraged by her piano-teaching aunt to start lessons when she was only 3. As a teenager, she studied at the Brussels Royal Music Conservatory in Belgium, where she stayed for 15 years, winning accolades as a concert pianist. She came to the United States to continue her studies in 1988, living in Bayside, Queens, and eventually settling three years ago in Great Neck. She lives there with her daughter, 14-year-old Eunice, who has been playing the piano since age 5, and her husband--not a pianist, but an executive with an international fishing company. In addition to teaching and performing, Lin also directs the Queens Music School in Fresh Meadows.
On January 8, Lin and Eunice will play a mother-daughter concert at Carnegie Hall--a return trip for both of them. Each has played in the Weill Recital Hall. But it marks their debuts in the 3,000-seat main performance space.
With her students, as it did with herself and her daughter, starting young makes all the difference. "It's a golden time," says Lin. "They have no homework; music comes in first in their life. They have great potential. The first few years are like a piece of blank white paper."
All of her proteges are natives of Taiwan, usually finding their way to Lin through word of mouth. "This is a very personal issue," she says about their common background. "We come from the same country and the same type of culture. We share a certain mentality."
But some things are universal. Among the challenges of teaching such young kids, she says, is helping them maintain their concentration and endurance. (She suggests, for instance, that parents increase their children's practice time each week by five-minute increments, hoping they won't notice if it's done gradually.) And that's not to mention the challenge of making children understand the emotions behind complex classical pieces.
Explaining the significance of a lighthearted Mozart sonata in C major to Harry at a recent lesson, Lin told him to play it "like a kite in the wind." He thought for a moment, nodded, then made his tiny hands flutter over the keys with a new, playful spirit. When he moved on to Invention, Lin tapped his shoulder blades over and over again as he played, telling him, "Loosen up!" and then, "More tone, more tone. This is Bach!"
But Lin doesn't forget that they're children. At the lesson's end--right before the start of 6-year-old Tiffany's--she plops a big bag of stickers onto the coffee table, right next to the lollipops, and tells Harry to pick one as a reward. After a deliberate search, he chooses a dinosaur, and becomes animated, just like any other kid, as he runs to show it to his father.