Chelsea de Souza was the co-winner of the top prize at the IIYM International Piano Competition in July 2010. Her performances were broadcast live on Kansas Public Radio, and she was also featured on NBC TV. Chelsea started playing the piano at the age of five and won her first All-India competition at the age of ten. She has a Licentiate from the Trinity College of Music, London, earning First Place in India at the L.T.C.L examination held in December 2009. At the age of fifteen, Chelsea gave her first recital at the National Centre for the Performing Arts. She is also a top student academically and has won several prizes in elocution, drama and singing.
I know the 2010 IIYM International Piano Competition was the first time you played in an international piano competition. It must have been fun, and stressful at the same time.
Playing for an international competition was a really exciting experience for me. I've taken part in a lot of competitions in India, so I know pretty much all the country’s competitors. I suppose that was the scariest aspect of this competition, that I had no clue what the competition was going to be - just that it would be really tough. When I first met all the other competitors and heard about all the international competitions and awards they had won, I was scared out of my wits, to be honest. But then I just told myself that I was taking part for the experience, and to learn what an international competition was like. I loved the piano we got to play on, the Shiguru Kawai - it took the experience to a whole new level. And it was really interesting to see how other kids my age deal with stress before their performances. One of the girls would dance in order to pump up her energy before performing, and another boy would eat an entire box of celery sticks to keep himself calm! And it was hilarious to see how all of us would feel so relieved after performing, that we would dissolve into hysterical laughter for practically no reason at all...
Were you surprised that you tied for the top prize?
Yeah, I was quite surprised that I tied for top place ... but I was also surprised when I first received the email telling me I had gotten into the semi-finals! I felt I played quite well at the semi-finals, I enjoyed my performance, but I didn't really know how my playing compared to the other semi-finalists' because I didn't go in and listen to the others. I did get a lot of compliments though, and I was thrilled when I got into the finals. That was a big enough achievement for me so I remember telling myself at that point that I just had to enjoy myself at the finals. I suppose the pieces that I ended my semifinal and final programs with - the Paganini Jazz and the Rhapsody in Blue - were the most fun to play, because by that time I had warmed up on stage, and was really enjoying myself. It was also really enjoyable playing my Debussy piece on the piano because of its awesome sound.
Everyone loved the piece you played called Paganini Jazz, by Fazil Say. How did you come to play it? I actually came across a recording of Paganini Jazz on YouTube, being played the composer, the Turkish pianist Fazil Say. I play a lot of jazz and pop for fun, so I really loved the piece because of the jazzy take on such a famous classical piece as the Paganini 24th Caprice - a lot of composers have written variations on it, but I felt a real connection with Fazil Say's version. So I ordered the score over the Internet, and that's how I came to play it. It's great fun to end a program with.
There are not so many top young pianists from India. How do you motivate yourself to work hard on a regular basis?
The difference between India and most other countries is that, in India, there is a large emphasis on academically oriented fields, and not so much on Western classical music in particular. The classical music community in India is quite a small one. It's always been quite a struggle to balance my studies with piano practice, because I'm at school for almost nine hours a day. But I love the feeling I get when performing on stage, so I suppose that’s what motivates me to practice. And I love learning new pieces, so that helps too.
What are your future plans?
Deciding to take up music as a career has been a very hard decision, because of the competition in the field and the risks involved in such a profession. For a long time I was thinking of doing a double major with music as one of my majors. But now I've pretty much decided to take up music, so I'm going to be applying to a few music conservatories in the US and in Germany this year.
Fei Xu is a member of the artist-faculty at the IIYM Summer Music Academy and teaches during the regular year in his studio at the New Century Conservatory in Chandler, Arizona. He is considered one of the world's most important teachers of pre-college students. His students have been top prizewinners in state, national, and international piano competitions, including the MTNA-Kawai Junior Performance, IIYM International Piano Competition, Stravinsky International Piano Competition, Missouri Southern International Piano Competition, Gina Bachauer International Piano Competition, and the National Foundation for the Advancement of Arts. A former assistant professor in Central Conservatory of China, Fei Xu holds both B.M. and M.M. degrees from that institution. He has been named Outstanding Teacher of the Year four times by the Arizona Young Artist Committee.
Lots of young pianists struggle mastering technique, but not your students! Do you have a special approach to building a fine technique?
It’s important to start by establishing good habits, even at age four or five. I begin by working with each student to develop firm fingers, to support the weight of the hand. I start with exercises and then have them play Old MacDonald and other folksongs, all with the idea of transferring weight from finger to finger. I call it “walking”. After that, we work on legato and then rotation. I introduce the concept of projection and focus on releasing the finger and weight from the key.
We work through a lot of pieces, once I am sure students understand the basic concepts. I use a mix of materials: N. Jane Tan’s Recital Études and Finger Plus, the John Thompson Junior Primer, then the Alfred Lesson Books all the way to Book Three. The students don’t get bored because there is great variety. I do all of this in the first year. Later comes Bastien Piano Literature and Czerny, op. 599, 849 and 299; also Hanon and scales.
I make sure students understand key concepts of playing: balance, dynamics, and gestures. Problem solving is the next aspect - how to practice to fix trouble spots. I help them analyze the problem, so that they can solve it themselves later. Each student is different: sometimes their gesture isn’t helping the sound, or they anticipate each physical movement too much. Some of them have hands that are too soft, others rush. We cope with problems individually.
I’m always amazed at the interpretive polish of your students—and often on very difficult pieces. Do you have a special way of teaching them to practice to achieve this?
We listen to pieces first, to get a lot of ideas. I don’t believe that at an early age this is possible to achieve by reading alone. I like to have students listen to a lot of music from different periods, so they get a concept of style. They need to know what is allowed in each style period, and what is not. We look at pieces and find the drama and conflict. I look for a performance that is logical emotionally. We supply our own interpretive marks when necessary, to shape the music. I ask a lot of questions. Next, we analyze the score, looking for big phrases and finding the melody. I ask each student: what key are we in? where is the development section? what musical material is used? We do all of this at the same time they are learning the piece - I never wait until the end.
How did your own interest in piano start? I didn’t start learning until I was eleven. My mom bought a piano - it was half of a year’s salary just to buy it. We got some help from my uncle. She was a pianist for a Chinese Dance Troupe and she brought me to rehearsals. I was very interested. She was a pianist so I enjoyed it - I liked the complexity of the sound and the completeness. I was so proud of myself for doing 2½ hours practice at age eleven. Compared to some of today’s kids, it’s nothing! My dad is a singer, so music was part of our family life. But I don’t have a good voice, so I gave up on that! My mom lives in Beijing and is still teaching and practicing two to three hours every day.
We hear so many outstanding young pianists from the People’s Republic of China. What do you think makes them so successful?
Lots of reasons! The top kids get excellent training from an early age - they lock into their future from the beginning. They are single-minded in pursuing their goals and dedicated. They practice six to eight hours a day on average. Many universities have professional, pre-college divisions that require much less homework than regular school. Young pianists in China get lots of parental support. In many families, one parent sacrifices his or her job and family life to support the talented child.
What do you like to do when you are relaxing away from the piano?
I don’t have too much time! I home-school our two kids on all subjects. But when I do relax, I play games with my kids. I like to read books about piano, and also Reader’s Digest books. I’m a big basketball fan and the Phoenix Suns are my team. I try to squeeze some time out to watch games when I can.
University of Kansas, Lawrence KS
Summer Music Academy
3 Week Session - July 10-29, 2011
2 Week Session 1 - July 10-22, 2011
2 Week Session 2 - July 17-29, 2011
International Piano Competition
Semi-finals - July 9, 2011
Finals - July 11, 2011
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