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Pre-College Students Make Strong Showings on the Competition Circuit

Alex Zhou

SFCM’s Pre-College students are some of the most musically advanced young artists in the country. They study with internationally renowned musicians, many on the Conservatory’s collegiate faculty and members of ensembles such as the San Francisco Symphony. It’s no surprise that a number of Pre-College students are placing in both national and international competitions—it’s a reflection of the high-level instruction students receive at SFCM.

Pianist Charlotte Wong, who performed for a national audience on NPR’s Live from Here with Chris Thile earlier this year, is one student who is dominating on the competition circuit. She was most recently a First Place Cash Prize Winner at the 2017 Vancouver International Music Competition, a Finalist at the Mondavi Center Young Artists Competition, and the Third Prize recipient at the Henry and Carol Zeiter Piano Competition. She has a very specific recipe for success leading up to her performances at competitions.

“I usually limit my repertoire so that I can focus on the pieces for my competitions,” she says. “I solely practice those pieces the days leading up to the competition, and I also play through them for my family to give some feedback, although they are not musicians.”

It seems to have worked for her. Wong notes her training at SFCM has propelled her success and made her a more engaged musician with regard to repertoire and musicianship.

“My teacher [Corey McVicar] has helped me tremendously in the past few years in shaping me to be the musician that I am today,” says Wong. “He has augmented my repertoire list and introduced me to songs I had never heard of before.

“In addition, the faculty at SFCM’s Pre-College have encouraged me so much by inspiring me to play more music and teaching us intensively through chamber music, musicianship, and chorus, as well. I am incredibly grateful for all the effort they put in for us each week.”

Sophia Valenti, another Pre-College student who studies viola with Dimitri Murrath and Hyelim Shin, is also rising through the ranks, receiving national attention for her Third Place finish at the Junior Division of the Sphinx Competition as well as performing on NPR’s From the Top. She also has a systematic approach to preparing for competitions.

“When preparing for competitions, I spend much of my time developing my intonation within the pieces and strengthening other technical aspects of my playing using scales and etudes that relate to my current repertoire,” she says. “When I feel confident in these areas, I then move on to developing the musical gestures and creating a story with the piece itself.”

It’s not just the music that is involved in competition preparation. The facilities at SFCM also play a crucial role for these young artists.

“The Pre-College division has provided me with endless support, resources such as recording studios and recitals, and access to the best teachers,” notes Valenti. (Students are benefited by SFCM’s recording department as it provides recordings of recitals and other concerts that students can use to inform their future performances.)

On June 3, Pre-College violinist Alex Zhou (a student of Zhao Wei) was named the winner of the 33rd Annual Irving M. Klein International String Competition, one of the most visible competitions for young string players today. He has also competed in the famed Menuhin Competition, has performed on NPR’s From the Top, and will soon be traveling to China to compete in the Schoenfeld International String Competition and the Shanghai Isaac Stern International Violin Competition.

“The Klein Competition was my first major competition in more than four years, so it was challenging for me to ease back into competition,” says Zhou. “However, my teacher, Zhao Wei, helped me immensely by allowing me to practice several hours a day at her home, graciously sacrificing her free time to work with me extensively, traveling with me to several of my competitions, and giving me great advice on competing and performing.”

With the encouragement of his teachers, Zhou focuses heavily on any upcoming competitions he competes in, but manages to balance his life so that the preparation doesn’t adversely consume him.

“In preparation for competitions, I practice more intensely than usual, and I also set time aside to run through my programs almost every day. I also remember to spend time relaxing, exercising, and getting enough sleep.”

“A memorable moment from a recent competition was this weekend, during the Klein Semifinals,” he continues. “I was extremely nervous beforehand and could not sleep the night before, so I did not expect to be able to perform very well. However, I was able to focus on my music and really enjoy the experience of performing great music onstage. As a result, I played my best and was able to advance to the Final Round.”

And that’s just it. These students truly enjoy the competitions in which they compete. They are excited by the prospect of performance, of recognition, and by the futures they are setting themselves up for. They represent the many Pre-College students who have made waves on the national and international competition stages. SFCM’s Pre-College is teeming with talent, and considering the examples of stellar musicians such as Charlotte Wong, Sophia Valenti, and Alex Zhou, the Conservatory is preparing its students to place at some of the most prestigious competitions around the globe.


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