Piano prodigy, 13, hopes to make mark on music

Victoria Young takes her seat at a modest upright Sohmer piano in the small Green Valley rental condominium she and her mother call home. After an hour of conversation that has gone from Teletubbies to virtual high school and a hectic piano practice schedule, Victoria is ready to shine, playing Frederic Chopin’s “Winter Wind.”

The 13-year-old Las Vegas native sits upright as she proceeds with a soft introduction. But in less than a minute, Chopin’s work forces anyone daring to play it on a laborious, hyperspeed chase commanding every square inch of the keyboard. Victoria is now hunched, her eyes heavy and firm like a quality control agent over her darting fingers that devour the keys from the highest to the lowest notes, many nearly stepping over each other as a result of the work’s frantic pace.

The middle-schooler is at the wheel of not only the Chopin piece, but an expanding classical piano repertoire that tops three full hours of memorized material. Her teacher, Mary Sauer at Chicago’s New Music School, where Victoria takes lessons two to three times a month, says it’s common for most pianists auditioning for a college scholarship or professional position to have only 1½ hours of material.

“Her powers of concentration and her discipline are so great. (Her repertoire is) amazing for someone who is even 10 to 15 years older,” Sauer adds.

And, with material spanning Bach, Mozart, Chopin and others, nothing comes easy. James Huneker, an American music critic of the late 19th and early 20th centuries said those who try to play “Winter Wind” must be ready for the heavy lifting, and “small-souled men, no matter how agile their fingers, should avoid it.”

When Victoria finishes the piece, she looks up and gives the grin of an adolescent that has just heard a good joke or aced an algebra test. Victoria knows she has a gift, and one day hopes to use it to make her own mark on the music world.

TOUGH START

Victoria’s mother, BeeLee, met her husband after moving to Las Vegas from Malaysia to work as a tour guide. She had Victoria on Presidents Day in 2000 and, like many Las Vegans, saw a bright and prosperous future for her family. But life took a turn for the worse as her marriage became abusive. When Victoria was 6, the pair spent four months in the domestic violence shelter, SAFE House. While living there, Victoria gave her first recital with the Nevada Symphony Orchestra.

“I remember that day I dressed her up and all the women there cheered for her,” BeeLee recalls. “She looked like a little princess in her little dress.”

Victoria still finds time to play at SAFE House when her schedule allows.

“We want to let the women and kids know there is a chance,” BeeLee says. “Because when you are in the lowest point of your life everything seems very hopeless.”

BeeLee first learned of her daughter’s musical abilities when Victoria was 4. The mother was taking harp lessons and one day while tuning the instrument Victoria harmonized with the notes while watching “Teletubbies.”

“She couldn’t say ‘C’ sharp, so she just said ‘the one between ‘do’ and ‘re,’ ” BeeLee remembers. “That’s how we learned she had perfect pitch.”

Victoria began piano lessons in Malaysia while visiting family a year later; she then took lessons locally. While spending time in China in 2009, where BeeLee had a scholarship to complete her linguistic studies degree, Victoria continued taking lessons and seemed to flourish.

After BeeLee completed her education, the goal was to find a full-time job and bring some much-needed financial stability to their lives. But having a daughter with an extraordinary gift would change plans. BeeLee chose instead to become a substitute teacher. The flexible schedule allows her and Victoria to take trips to Chicago for piano lessons. It’s the least she could do for a daughter who was her biggest cheerleader while she was completing her own education.

“Since she was 6, it was like she was taking care of me. I would come home at night from school and she would write a note for me, ‘You can do it, Mom,’ ” BeeLee says. “She was so young, I felt like she was taking care of me and her grandmother was taking care of her. … When I finished school I really wanted to spend time with her and allow her to spend more time playing piano.”

Victoria then started to make a splash on the national and international scene. In 2011, she won the $10,000 Jack Kent Cooke Young Artist Award for her performance on NPR’s “From the Top” program. She has won first place in the Nevada Piano Concerto Competition, the Stony Brook International Piano Festival Competition, and recently was one of only two Americans in the 24-year history of the Rosalyn Tureck International Bach Piano Competition to win a first-place award. She has also played in Spain, the Dominican Republic, and at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall in New York.

“She is such a sweet, humble person, so gentle, but so strong in her determination and her sense of responsibility to the talent she’s been given,” Sauer says. “She considers it a gift and it’s her responsibility to take care of it.”

HELP AT HOME

The commitment to Victoria’s piano studies comes with an intense physical and financial commitment. Chicago trips usually last two or three days, and Victoria, after doing marathon three-hour lessons with Sauer, sometimes practices 10 to 12 hours a day in the studio. Meanwhile, her mom looks on the Internet for airline ticket deals and competitions Victoria can enter.

Lessons and travel costs run well into the five figures over the course of a year, well above what BeeLee makes as a substitute teacher. A few grants, scholarships and prize winnings have helped through the years, but there are times when a hotel can be too expensive. Both have had to sleep in hotel lobbies or take quick naps in practice studios in the past year, since starting with Sauer, a longtime member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and a teacher known for grooming professional pianists.

A couple of years ago, Lorelle Nelson, a retired valley piano technician, was looking for someone to whom she could donate an upright piano. When she heard Victoria play, she found the perfect person, she figured. But a friendship has bloomed since then. Now, she and her husband, Lance Davis, invite Victoria to come to their home and play several times a year and allow the events to serve as informal fundraisers.

“When Victoria played … I got tears in my eyes,” Davis says. “She plays like an adult, but gets up and smiles and you see this little girl.”

Patty Dominguez, program director of the Metro Arts Council of Southern Nevada, is pooling resources to start an online fundraising campaign to help Victoria and BeeLee with expenses. Dominguez hopes the money raised can ease some of the financial burden and allow Victoria to focus more easily on her piano studies.

“Trying to actually make it in that industry, the odds are so far stacked against you. But this is someone who is homegrown from Las Vegas. (And) we want to introduce her to larger audiences,” she says.

Victoria’s goal is to become a concert pianist, although you may have a better chance of becoming a U.S. president, BeeLee says jokingly. College music programs have a limited number of positions that upon graduation offer even fewer professional opportunities. Sometimes, it’s a case of waiting until a pianist retires or has to step down because of age or health problems, BeeLee explains. But the mother says that if her daughter has the drive to play, she is willing to continue helping.

Victoria attends Clark County School District’s Virtual Academy and also excels academically. She takes her elective classes (French and Spanish) at Bob Miller Middle School. Her friends are supportive, she says, even though many may not understand or gravitate toward classical music. Victoria dabbles in original pieces and also hopes to someday find a way to connect classical music with today’s pop culture generation.

“I just want to do something different so that people can appreciate classical music,” she says. “Classical music is so deep. … It’s so much more than listening and clapping at the right time.”

Sauer praises Victoria for her ability to “go inside the musical composition” and understand internally how it is structured to try to tell the story of the work through her playing. Victoria has even given explanations to audiences about a piece’s history and meaning to help listeners better understand it.

“I just hope I can do something that can make people more comfortable and appreciate it (classical music) more,” Victoria says.

For information on efforts to help Victoria Young, contact Patty Dominguez at patty@metroartsnevada.com.

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