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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, November 08, 2002

Boy wonder Boy wonder (November 08, 2002)

Composing music and raising chickens -- a regular day for 10-year-old Kit Armstrong

by Sue Dremann

He has composed a "Chicken Sonata" for his two pet chickens. Professional orchestras perform his classical works. He's won awards for his performances and compositions in far parts of the world -- and he's just 10 years old.

The artist in question is pianist-composer Kit Armstrong, whose Sunday concert at Stanford University's Dinkelspiel Auditorium is already sold out. But locals will have another opportunity to see him perform and chat on Monday at the Community School of Music and Arts in Mountain View. For that concert, Armstrong will perform his "Chicken Sonata," composed in honor of Carbon and Nitrogen.

"Ideas just come to me from many places. I hear everything," said the robust-voiced Armstrong. "I write music for all instruments. The ideas come from many places. Sometimes I have feelings from the outside -- they enter my head and I process it. It's reflected in the music over time. Today ideas come to me, and tomorrow I will write it down."

Armstrong has written more than 15 works, including pieces for solo piano, a piano quartet, two string quartets, a symphony and a concerto. He is the youngest winner of the concerto competition at Tel-Hai International Master Classes in Israel, and he has won numerous prestigious Mozart and Bach competitions. On May 23, he was awarded a 2002 Morton Gould Young Composer Award, sponsored by ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers).

Armstrong has personally chosen the pieces for the performance, which include Bach's "French Suite No. 6 in E Major, BWV 827," Beethoven's "Piano Sonata No. 10 in G Major, op. 14, no. 2," Bartok's "Romanian Folk Dances" and Mozart's "Piano Sonata in B-flat Major. K. 333." The Beet Quartet, a local ensemble, will also perform two movements from Armstrong's "String Quartet No. 1 in B-flat Major."

A native of southern California, Armstrong was first introduced to music at the age of 5. His prodigious gifts came as a surprise, his mother, May Armstrong, said.

"We are not a musical family at all. We took him to a piano program for children. After two or three weeks, he began composing. He asked so many questions, and he composed every day," May said.

His teachers quickly concluded he was in a class of his own. Soon after, the family obtained a piano and enrolled him in music theory and composition classes. He hasn't stopped composing ever since. Armstrong most recently finished drafting out a string quartet.

"I started composing before I learned to know the limitations of the instruments. A lot of it I can't quite understand. I'm having string players look it over to make sure that it's all right," he said.

Although Armstrong said he would have to think about which composer most influenced him, he does find Bach very convincing. Sunday's program, presented by Stanford Lively Arts, will feature "Homage to Bach," an original composition written in 2000.

"Any good piece of music must be convincing in its musical content. Music that is convincing is music that gives a sense of gratification. There is more than one way to do it, but it should be developed in a satisfying way," he added.

Much of Armstrong's training has been in the works of 18th-century composers, and his earlier compositions reflect that influence, he said. He has not developed a taste for modern music, but Armstrong has lately been venturing into his own style -- what he refers to as his "modern style." The Stanford audience will have the opportunity to hear him perform "A Thunderstorm" (2002), which is composed in the new style, he said.

Another work, "Five Elements," (1999), won him a $10,000 fellowship from the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, a Nevada-based nonprofit group that provides financial awards to children with exceptional gifts in furtherance of their education. He will perform the piece at the Stanford concert. Its five movements -- Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, and Aeolian -- are the names of ancient church modes, he said. Each of the modes has a unique musical scale.

As for the future, Armstrong plans to learn and perform all of Mozart's piano concertos in time for the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth in 2006. But where he will perform them has yet to be determined.

"That's not the challenge. Getting to know these wonderful pieces in depth is basically why I want to do this," he said.

From both mother and son's perspective, it seems gaining satisfaction from attaining knowledge is paramount. To that end, Armstrong's performances have largely been limited to educationally-related institutions, to keep the focus on learning, not on performance.

Even rarer are interviews with the press.

"The press wouldn't be granted an interview, if it had not been associated with his performance at Stanford," May, a single mother, said of her only child. "He's only 10. It's important that he be allowed to be a child."

Armstrong grew up in Anaheim and graduated from Los Alamitos High school at the age of 7, ranked No. 1 in his class of 700 students. He also became the youngest scholarship student in the 140-year history of Chapman University.

Armstrong's own assessment of his abilities indicate a balanced view of his self-image.

"I think prodigy is a very vague term and do not see myself as one. It's hard to describe myself because I am myself," he said in a written statement.

Gifted as well in mathematics, the sciences and languages, Armstrong speaks Chinese, Taiwanese, German and Russian, in addition to English. His Russian coach also taught him to play chess.

But Armstrong has little time for languages or chess right now. He is currently enrolled as a sophomore at a university in Utah, where he has a full-time college curriculum, and studies mathematics, biology, chemistry and physics. He is currently involved in a laboratory project that involves the marriage of his favorite subjects -- music, biology and physics. Specifically, Armstrong is investigating the possible synchronism between plants and music, with each composed of certain proportions.

"Someone said that 'music can be described as a system of proportions that can communicate.' I think that's exactly right," Armstrong said. "Plants have a number of responses to their environment. The plants' stomatal (openings in the outer surface of the plant) response seems to approach the proportions that we think music is. Perhaps life may be based on this system of proportions, whatever it may be."

E-mail Sue Dremann at [email protected]

Who: Kit Armstrong will deliver an informal discussion of his music, school work and pets, including a performance of the "Chicken Sonata." Seating is limited. Admission will be on a first-come-first-served basis.

Where: The Community School of Music and Arts, 220 View St. (between Dana and Villa), Mountain View

When: Monday from 6 to 7 p.m.

Cost: Admission is free.

Info: Call (650) 961-0342 or visit
Kit Armstrong's Sunday performance at 2:30 p.m. at Stanford University's Dinkelspiel Auditorium is sold out. It will be a presentation of Stanford Lively Arts.


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