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Classical Dreams

With 10 years of piano lessons, four pieces of music and one chance to compete on the world stage, Katherine Chen faced the most accomplished young musicians in the Cincinnati World Piano Competition.

Chen, a senior at Hampton High School, won first place in the level eight solo performances from an original pool of 220 competitors from across the globe, but not without a lot of hard work.

Chen is accomplished in many areas of her life. She is the state Technology Student Association president and on Hampton’s varsity girls tennis team. But the most challenging activity for Chen is playing the piano.

“It’s hands down definitely the most difficult thing I do,” she says. “It’s so abstract as an art form.”

She even took a year off from taking piano lessons during her freshman year.

“At that point, I was really into tennis. I wasn’t really thinking I was going to pursue piano anymore. I didn’t really like practicing, no one really likes practicing, and there are so many other things in high school.”

But by her sophomore year, Chen felt she hadn’t learned all she could in piano and returned under the instruction of Carnegie Mellon University Professor Hanna Wu Li, director of the Music Preparatory School Piano Division at the university. After just two years together, Li recommended Chen audition for the Cincinnati World Piano Competition, and as her last eligible year to compete, Chen couldn’t say, “no.”

During the audition, Chen performed four pieces from different musical periods, as well as scales and dexterity exercises and demonstrated an ability to sight read and her knowledge of musical history. 

Chen passed the audition and chose “March of the Dwarves” and “Capriccio” by George Frideric Handel to perform in front of the judges in Cincinnati. Then, she spent the three weeks prior to semifinals practicing up to seven hours per day.

“I’ve never practiced that much before,” Chen says.

The Cincinnati World Piano Competition encompassed four days of performances at the Aronoff Center for the Arts — and more practicing.

While the pianists compete onstage, they’re also competing for practice pianos and practice rooms off stage. Chen ate, slept and breathed piano — almost literally.

“I didn’t eat regular meals because you can’t eat in the practice rooms, and if you leave a practice room, you’ll lose the piano,” Chen says, adding she also took naps in the small practice rooms so she wouldn’t lose her space.

This was Chen’s first competition and she was struck by the glamour of the ball gowns and tuxedos the competitors wore, but she admitted the pressure she felt was “ridiculous.”

“You have four minutes, and it’s your last year — your mom and friends and piano teacher are in the audience” Chen says.

But after her performance ended, Li walked up to Chen and told her “you play very well, I am proud of you.”

“For me, that was the best part ever,” Chen says.

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