Toronto’s Tony Yang, a 16-year-old student at Cardinal Carter Academy for the Arts, takes part in the 17th International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw, Poland. He placed fifth out of 78 participants, the youngest person to ever place at the prestigious event named after famed composer and pianist Frederic Chopin. Photo courtesy of Tony Yang

Piano virtuoso, only 16, hits right notes

  • November 8, 2015

TORONTO - Tony Yang thought so little of his chances at the world’s most prestigious piano contest that he arrived in Poland with an early ticket home already in hand.

The Toronto high school student hoped just to make it to the second round of the International Chopin Piano Competition, enjoy the experience and then hop a flight home. Instead, he made history — and almost $35,000 — by becoming the youngest prize winner in the history of the renowned event.

“I actually bought a plane ticket for the end of the second round which was (for) the 14th” of October, said Yang, 16. “I didn’t expect anything like this. For me this was a very big honour and surprise too.”

Yang, a Grade 12 student at Toronto’s Cardinal Carter Academy for the Arts, placed fifth out of the 78 who competed in the four-round competition last month in Warsaw,.

It was a lucrative trip for Yang. The fifth-place finish garnered him €10,000, about $14,500, and almost $20,000 in another cash prize for being the youngest person ever to place in the competition.

And it nearly didn’t happen at all. When the preliminaries to get to the final stage took place in April, Yang contemplated not taking part.

“But then I thought, oh well I’m at the bottom of the age limit so I might as well apply just to get some experience. But I wouldn’t take it seriously,” he said. “I thought I’d go for fun. Just enjoy the moment.”

The Chopin competition, named in honour of the famous 19th-century composer and virtuoso pianist Frederic Chopin, was first held in 1927. It takes place every five years (the competition was interrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War but resumed in 1945 at the war’s end and the five-year cycle began again).

Over the years the event has provided pianists such as Yundi Li, Maurizio Pollini and Mika Sato with their big break.

“It is probably the most prestigious competition in the piano world,” said Yang. “It was nerve racking.”

That’s because Yang was surprised to make the finals, he hadn’t really prepared, at least not by his high standards.

“I had another junior competition back in June right after exams so really it wasn’t until July that I started preparing,” he said. “That was pretty late. My teacher calls this kind of preparation cooking instant noodles.”

And that’s not typical of Yang, who first took to the ivories when he was five-years-old.

“My mom actually studied piano in university and voice so she plays a lot of piano at home,” he said. “When I was a kid I would, out of curiosity, go to the piano and then she started teaching me. I was very hard on myself. Apparently I would hit myself, my hands, if I didn’t play well.”

By age nine, Yang had successfully completed Grade 10 piano, although he has yet to attempt the ARCT teaching certificate.

At Cardinal Carter, this all came as a surprise as few were aware of Yang’s talent.

“Tony is a violin student here at Carter,” said Anne Bellissimo, the school principal. “We don’t offer piano as an instrument. So we were really surprised to learn just how talented he is.”

She went on to say that when the school has such an elite performer, a relatively rare case, the school does everything possible to accommodate them in terms of time away from school.

“When we do have an exceptionally talented student we will obviously try to support them the best we can on the academic side,” she said. “We realize the time commitment that that requires as well.”

This school year alone Yang was absent from the second week of school until returning from the Chopin competition on Oct. 27. He will again be away from the classroom for about a month starting in mid-January when he travels to Japan and Korea to perform.

“The teachers and the staff are working to try to reorganize the curriculum for me so I think that is something that is very special,” he said, noting that he’ll have to make up his winter exams.

Juggling two instruments, academics and a series of performances abroad has come with a cost to Yang’s social life.

“I miss out on a lot of social activities,” he said. “During the summer I didn’t really go anywhere. I was alone and I practised all day.

“Sometimes I do find some time to do some other things but never is there enough time to enjoy, just the music.”

Yang plans to make a living off the art now that he’s become internationally recognized as one of today’s best in the piano world.

“I don’t see myself doing a lot of textbook work in the future,” he said. “I enjoy music and things from the art industry much more than I do academics.”

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