Carolynn Cong, 14, was born in North Carolina and currently resides in Arizona. A student of Fei Xu, she has enjoyed numerous successes as a pianist. In March 2009, her performance on NPR's From the Top was broadcast nationwide and she has made it to the MTNA Baldwin Junior Piano Competition National Finals twice. In 2007, she won first prize in the Schimmel Arizona Young Artist Piano Competition.
Carolynn, would you say that you have a “normal” teenage life?
I want a regular high school experience and I don’t want to lose the academics - or the social life. I don’t have enough self-control to stay home 24/7 and practice, at least without my parents’ help. I attend a charter school, Basis Scottsdale, which was named first in state of Arizona. There’s lots of homework and, even worse, lots of tests [groan].
Do you enjoy it?
My favorite subject is psychology - it covers all fields of your everyday life. You learn everything about the brain. It helps you get ready for tests, and for piano competitions! In addition to academics, I also like to swim and I go to the pool a lot.
How do you find time to practice?
With 3-5 hours of homework every day, it’s hard. I try to catch up with practice on the weekends. I have finals next week, so I’m really stressed right now. But I’m managing.
What made you decide to take piano lessons?
I was visiting my cousins in Boston who were taking keyboard lessons - I guess I was 3 or 4 years old at the time - I took their keyboard and hogged it the whole time, so my Mom and Dad started me on lessons.
Were you serious about your playing right away, or did that come later?
I felt very special when I played the piano and I really enjoyed it. I was proud of myself that I could do it.
You’ve had a lot of success in competitions. What motivates you to work so hard?
In my first competition, I was so nervous, and I was determined to get First Place, but I got Second. I was really mad at myself and I worked harder so I could get First the next year. When I practice, I make sure my pieces are stable. I practice slowly, with steady fingers. For musicality, I think about the piece and its background, but a lot of it comes to me in the moment of the performances.
You recently won the MTNA-Kawai Junior Piano Competition for the state of Arizona, and then the Southwest Division. Was that exciting?
I was so nervous. Everyone told me they couldn’t tell, and I was like, that’s crazy! I try to calm myself down this time. It half-worked, I tried to think happy thoughts and not worry.
Do you have a favorite composer?
Chopin. His pieces are so free and you can express your feelings through them.
What are your future plans?
I’m torn between academics and piano - and I want it all. I’m going to go with it and see where it leads.
Click here to listen to Carolynn in the 2008 IIYM International Piano Competition
Nancy Weems has performed extensively in the United States, Europe, Asia, Mexico, Central America, and the former Soviet Union to wide critical acclaim. She represented the United States in the 1981 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition and her students have won top awards in many national and international competitions including the first prizes in the MTNA Collegiate Artist Competition, the Corpus Christi Young Artist Competition, and the Nena Wideman National Young Artist Concerto Competition. Nancy is Professor and Coordinator of the piano area at the University of Houston Moores School of Music in Houston, Texas.
You are considered one of the top teachers in the United States. Were you always interested in teaching?
When I was younger, I was interested in playing the piano and becoming the best pianist I could be. It was later, when I was in college, that I became attracted to what I call a “combo career” in teaching and performance. This combination has been very fulfilling for me.
In my opinion, you can’t be a great teacher if you can’t play the instrument. You have to think about the process of learning, from very beginning steps up to the performance level. Never stop learning! I learned most of what I know after I got out of college.
I know you hear lots of talented students at the University of Houston and when you judge competitions. Are there any areas from their precollege study in which they could be better prepared?
There are always a wide variety of backgrounds in students. As a good teacher, I work with them all and try to make them all successful. I would tell students to concentrate on basics such as building a firm technical foundation and really knowing how to practice. Many people don’t understand how to go from learning the notes to an artistic level. Lots of younger students depend on their teacher for this - but they need to learn to do it for themselves.
Do you think there are any secrets to winning competitions?
[Laughing] Well sometimes it’s more important to survive them. There are lots of good things about competitions, but some negatives, too. I tell my students to view them as a game - you’re going to win a few, but lose a lot more. Develop a thick skin.
Having said that, being 150% prepared is the key. Then, when you get nervous, you’ll still be at 100%.
Also, there is an art to repertoire selection. In multi-level competitions, the most severe cut is at the preliminary rounds. I tell my students that first impressions are the strongest ones. Show your best up front. Take risks in later rounds, after the judges are interested in you. As a judge, I’m intrigued by unusual choices, but I also want to know that a student can cover the basics.
What advice would you give a young musician who wants to have a career as an outstanding piano teacher?
Stay plugged into the source. Don’t lose touch with music making, and continue to grow as an artist yourself.
University of Kansas, Lawrence KS
3 Week Session - July 11-30, 2010
2 Week Session 1 - July 11-23, 2010
2 Week Session 2 - July 18-30, 2010
Outstanding International Faculty,
Private Lessons, Masterclasses,
Academic Classes, and Performing Opportunities
Visit our new website at www.iiym.com
to learn more and apply.
Everybody wants to make music.
Click here to watch.