In a small, yellow room at the back of a Schmitt Music store in a strip mall, Michael Tang sat down at a grand piano.
His teacher, Jo Anne Link, sat at another piano beside him and began to play the opening measures of the Grieg Concerto in A minor. Behind them, several other students sat in a row, waiting their turns to play.
When Michael's moment came, he straightened his shoulders and leaned into the keys, marking the beat as he moved in unison with his teacher. The other students listened solemnly, some with their heads bowed.
Michael is 14, but plays with the clarity and nuance of someone much older. He started playing piano at age seven, after his parents bought him a toy keyboard and saw how much he liked playing it. Today, he's one of the top students at St. Paul's Crocus Hill Studios, his resume full of strong performances and competition victories. In addition, he plays percussion in the band at Valley View Middle School, where he's in ninth grade.
And it's not just music. He also does math — a lot of it. He's been taking advanced classes at the University of Minnesota since he was 10, and has won multiple state competitions. After high school, he plans to attend college — he's not yet sure which one — and major in mathematics.
There's a lot of pressure that comes from such a good track record, but there's also a lot of support. When his mother, Dongmei, talks about his playing, her face is joyful.
"We all have hands," she said, laughing. "But I couldn't play."
Before every competition, she said, she tells her son one thing: "Remember, you play for the music. You come here for the music. You're not here to win."
A slight, shy boy with wire-rimmed glasses, Michael is a quiet and careful speaker. He loves music — he thinks of it as his sport — but admits that he doesn't always want to practice. He enjoys performing in recitals and competitions, but acknowledges that he gets nervous.
"I take deep breaths," he said.
Michael and his mother agree that his ninth grade year, with its added schoolwork, has been tough. Though Michael used to practice two to three hours a day — and often still does — there are some days when he just doesn't get to it. Both are grateful for his teacher's understanding, and for the fact that she's consistently chosen pieces that fit Michael well.
"I think Michael really enjoys the music," Dongmei said. "Especially when he plays a piece that he really likes, he really gets his emotions into the music. And then when that happens, he plays it really well and everybody can feel his emotion from the music that he plays."
The Grieg Concerto is one of those pieces. Michael has been working on it on and off for about six months, and though it's difficult to play, it's become one of his favorites.
He'll perform it April 5-6, in West St. Paul and Columbia Heights, with the Mississippi Valley Orchestra. Michael enjoys the collaboration, with its added opportunities for new kinds of sounds, but feels the weight of expectation that comes from playing with so many others.
"There's a lot more people I can potentially disappoint," he said.
Emma Nelson is a senior journalism student at the University of Minnesota.
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