Originally created 01/09/01

Piano competition strikes a chord



Imagine playing piano for an audience full of people in rubber chicken suits.

That's one of the tips Susan Zhang has heard for overcoming nervousness before she goes onstage.

"I always get nervous before performances," the 12-year-old pianist says, rolling her eyes. "I haven't found a way not to. So I have to practice a lot."

That practice paid off in November, when the Davidson Fine Arts Magnet School seventh-grader beat out three competitors in the Symphony Youth Competition, sponsored by the Augusta Symphony and the Augusta Symphony Guild. She will perform at 3 p.m. Sunday in Keyboard Music and Magic, part of the Publix Family Concert Series. The concert is at the Grover C. Maxwell Performing Arts Theatre at Augusta State University, 2500 Walton Way.

Susan also will get a chance to meet renowned pianist Jerome Lowenthal, who's also on the program.

"She was marvelous, as far as her quality goes," said Susan Self, executive director of the symphony. "She stood out."

"Oh, I was so nervous," Susan said. "It was the first competition I've ever entered. My piano teacher from school was going to come - he was going to use it as a test grade. But when I finished, I knew I'd done well."

She practices an hour a day - well, sometimes less, but she makes up for it on weekends. She prefers Claude Debussy's work to anything else - "His music is unique," she enthused. "It's the Impressionistic work, and I've done a lot of his stuff."

Despite her nerves before she goes on stage, she also takes drama and ballet at school because, when you get right down to it, the praise after a good performance is worth any amount of pre-show jitters.

"I'm always backstage, standing there, going `I'm going to mess up, I'm going to mess up, I'm going to mess up.' But it's more that you got up there and you did it ... and all the stuff that people say after the performance - 'You did so well!' - I like that."

She practiced the competition piece - Concerto No. 5, Opus 50, by Dmitry Kabalevsky - for two- and three-hour blocks on the weekends for months ahead of time, often at Reid Memorial Presbyterian Church, where a former teacher is an accompanist. Some church members got so used to hearing her, they plan to come to the concert to hear the final product.

"A lot of people wanted to come," she said with an infectious grin.

When she started playing 5´ years ago, she was steered toward the piano by her parents - and everyone else was playing the piano, so why not? Now, she has put enough time into it that she's not going to let the effort go to waste.

"I really don't know why I do it," she said thoughtfully. "It's like a determination that you've been playing this long, so you don't want to throw it all away."

On stage

What: Keyboard Music and Magic

When: 3 p.m. SundayWhere: Grover C. Maxwell Performing Arts Theatre, Augusta State University, 2500 Walton Way

Admission: $6, $25 for a family up to six people. Call 826-4705

Reach: Alisa DeMao at (706) 823-3223.