Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - October 6, 2006

All the home's a stage

Fueled by parental support and a mini-concert hall at home, young pianist pursues his passion

by Julie Park

Those dust-gathering upright pianos in living rooms are often as good as it gets when it comes to practicing the piano. Pianist Kenric Tam, a Gunn High School junior, has a stage of his own.

Scaled down to fit into the family's Los Altos Hills home, the raised platform is long enough to accommodate the 9-foot Steinway grand piano. Theatrically bright lights shower the stage. The setup is meant to simulate a concert hall environment so that Kenric can practice for performances.

His father, Kinsang Tam, built the stage for Kenric's older sister, Jessica, who also played the piano. But if the mini-stage appears a bit excessive, it also seems extremely useful in light of Kenric's talent and passion.

Kenric, 16, is an exceptional pianist, so much so that he performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic as the first prize winner of the 2006 Bronislaw Kaper Awards.

He has won a long list of competitions. Recently, he won second prize at the Eastman International Piano Competition, which came with a $2,000 prize and a $15,000 annual scholarship at the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester in New York. He has also won competitions with the El Camino Youth and California Youth symphonies.

When Kenric plays the piano, he has the intensity that all serious pianists seem to have, immersed in a private world, channeling his understanding of the music through the instrument so that the audience can hear what he's hearing. When he plays Chopin's Ballade in F minor, opus 52, the keys receive a touch so precise that even the loud notes sound as though they are caressed.

John McCarthy, Kenric's piano teacher of five years, describes his pupil as "instrinsically motivated to play great music." McCarthy is director of the preparatory division at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

Truly, Kenric is an artist who will probably never let piano be just a hobby. He began playing piano at the age of five and says he fully intends to do so for the rest of his life, possibly as a concert pianist.

Both of his parents say they aren't talented musicians. His mother, Carol, is an accountant who played piano as a child but says she wasn't very good. His father designs music halls and their acoustics but has never played an instrument. He says that Kenric's talent is "a gift from God."

Kenric's lifestyle is disciplined and not unlike that of an athlete in training. He goes to school, does his homework and practices piano for three hours a day. One or two months before a performance, he has his pieces memorized. On the day of a performance, he takes it easier: "I wake up late, and I won't practice much. Sometimes I'll take a nap. And I won't eat a lot that day."

Since he has other interests, Kenric is not betting everything on a career as a pianist. At Gunn, he takes a barrage of Advanced Placement classes, including calculus and biology — he's also considering a career in medicine.

But if he does pursue piano as a career, Kenric will experience a challenging life of constant practicing and traveling. He has gotten a taste of this hectic schedule. Once he left school in the afternoon to get on a plane and perform that evening; he then returned the next morning so that he could still go to school on time. Last year, he flew to Los Angeles 12 times in four months, doing homework on the plane.

He estimates he flies more than 10 times a year. "It just feels normal to me now," he said.

Kenric's favorite composer is Chopin, and he likes Rachmaninoff and "some Prokofiev." Rather than playing piano to vent emotions, he said, "I like to play to create emotions." He prefers music from the Romantic period, as well as Early Contemporary compositions.

In the world of prodigious talent, people are wary of using the word "prodigy." Asked if he would call Kenric a prodigy, John McCarthy shies away from the "loaded word." What he does say is that Kenric "is among the most talented students of his generation. He has an unusual capacity to be emotionally engaged and at the same time, to be aware of the complexities of a piece."

The thing about children or teenagers who are remarkably talented is that they seem to be both children and adults. It is fascinating and also disconcerting.

When Kenric puts his hands to the keys of a piano, he steps into a different state of mind, with an assuredness, focus, and maturity that are not readily apparent when he is not thinking about or playing music.

Away from the keyboard and academics he is like many 16-year-olds — a little bit bashful, tentative around adults. He begins many of his sentences with "I guess..." He slouches in the armchair he sits in, leaning on the armrest. He likes computer games, watching movies, and spending time with his friends. Aside from his major talent and discipline, he seems to be a regular kid.

"What I find remarkable about Kenric as a person is how unassuming and balanced he is," McCarthy said. "There's not a trace of eccentricity or self-absorption."

As for Kenric, he said: "Others have their fortes and talents as well. When I go to school in the morning, I feel like a normal teenager, a part of the group."

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