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Greatness Flows Through the Fingertips of Pianist Grace Zhao, the University of La Verne’s Artist In Residence.
Grace Zhao’s fingers glide gracefully across the keys of her piano and, with every precise stroke, she moves her audience to feel the passion. The music transcends time and place as she masterfully interprets the works of Frederic Chopin, George Gershwin and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, strong notes piercing her listeners, soft passages caressing them. In the perfection of each note, Zhao’s talent, passion and love for music can be felt throughout the auditorium.
As Director of Piano Studies at the University of La Verne, and the university’s Artist In Residence, Grace Zhao finds fulfillment in her music, and the perfect order of the movement of the keys beneath her fingers casts a spell of musical enchantment.
“Music goes somewhere so deep and so personal that it’s hard to express in words,” Zhao said.
While meeting with one of her students, Zhao asked what Chopin meant to him. He suddenly began to cry because it was so personal and deeply rooted in his soul.
“That’s my daily conversation with students,” Zhao said. “So much of what I do is about explorations of beauty and the deepest of human emotions. In order to play music well, we have to examine inwardly and really search our souls.”
Professor of Biology Jeffery Burkhart had little interest in the performances of the La Verne music department until he heard Zhao play the piano.
“Coming to her concerts seems to have awakened in me a deeper appreciation of music,” Burkhart said.
When Zhao began playing the piano at age 3, she never could have dreamed that she would one day play in concert at the National Center for the Arts in Beijing, China, the Nixon Library in Southern California or the recital hall of Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria, plus have a career teaching students in the United States. Back then, all she knew was that she had to have a piano like her older cousin and she had to learn how to play it.
Zhao begged and pleaded with her parents to get her very first piano. At first resistant, her mother suggested that she play the accordion or keyboard instead because they would be more economical choices. But Zhao insisted. Before committing to purchasing the piano, Zhao’s parents made it abundantly clear that it would not be a toy, that she had to commit to it, and that it was not something that could be discarded like an old doll if she became bored.
After securing a loan to buy the piano, Zhao’s father, Yujian Zhao, a member of the Chinese Air Force and a professional basketball player, and her mother, Yirong Shi, an accountant, made the piano lessons serious business. Their 3-year-old daughter practiced at least four hours a day. As she grew older, instead of watching television or playing outside with friends, Zhao spent her days inside learning to perfect her craft. By the time she reached high school age, she was playing many more hours and falling in love with the music of Chopin.
“(The training) is closer to that of athletes, like figure skaters or gymnasts,” Zhao said. “You start young and it’s very competitive. You need a lot of discipline, an extreme amount of discipline to really achieve a certain caliber with your instrument. Ten percent is talent, but 90 percent is work.”
Her audience sees and hears only the talent.
Zhao charms students, faculty, staff and her audiences with her humble demeanor. Observers say she is never pretentious and always willing to praise others; that is integral to her appeal. Zhao is the first to say that her performance level has required countless hours of practice, and studying and reading music, and that it wasn’t something just intrinsic.
“Everyone has the potential to be great at something,” Zhao said. “But if you never work at it, you will never get there.”
At age 12, Zhao was playing the piano at a music conservatory in China. By age 14 she was competing internationally. Eventually, all of the hard work and dedication afforded Zhao the opportunity to attend the University of Southern California on a full scholarship. There she completed her studies with a doctorate in music in 2008. Achieving such a lofty academic standing came with its own difficulties and struggles. After all-night practice sessions, Zhao would return to her dorm at 6 a.m., sleep for an hour, then meet friends for breakfast before starting her classes at 8.
Now as a professor and performer, music and the piano are more than just a job for Zhao. The creative outlet is a driving force behind her passion for playing and teaching. Much of that, she recognizes, is lacking in today’s world, with so many media at society’s fingertips through smart phones, MP3 players, the Internet and television.
“In today’s entertainment, we’re consumers,” Zhao said. “We take what the media or mass media has given us. To be able to create the entertainment for yourself is powerful. You are producing your own entertainment and you’re engaged. It’s a way of communicating.”
Teaching at La Verne has become another passion for Zhao. She first came to La Verne in 2008 as choral accompanist after teaching as a graduate student at USC, and immediately recognized the incredible talent across La Verne’s campus. Along with their musical studies, creativity is something that she wants her students to value.
“Grace has made an impact on me by getting me to play an instrument again,” said Heather Bland, a sophomore psychology major with a minor in music. “She has taught me that it takes a lot of dedication in order to play an instrument; you need to put your heart into what you do and also enjoy it.”
Zhao said she also hopes to impart some wisdom from her mother. When Zhao was a teenager her mother told her that she had given her music and a piano so that she would never be lonely. That’s exactly what she believes music will provide for others, if they allow it.
“The older I get, the more I do feel it is such a gift,” Zhao said. “Music has provided so much comfort, and she was right — I am never bored.”
Music is Zhao’s gift to not only her students, but to the world.
Moving from China across the globe to the United States has been an easy transition for Zhao because she always knew she would travel to the west after spending countless hours studying western music. Because of the demand for her performances and talent in teaching, Zhao is able to travel to China at least twice a year. In addition to teaching at La Verne she was recently appointed as the visiting professor at Sichuan Music Conservatory, one of the top three conservatories in China.
“Grace is a very personable, friendly, world-class pianist and has a lovely sense of humor,” said Reed Gratz, Professor of Music and chair of the University of La Verne Music Department. “She is a great teacher of music and is someone students trust with their feelings and failures.”
Now with more than 120 students playing the piano, Zhao is filled with pride and admiration for her students, who she says are some of the hardest working and most dedicated on campus. La Verne Professor of Music Kathleen Lamkin credits Zhao with the tremendous growth of the “flourishing” piano program, which now includes 10 piano workshops and multiple opportunities for private lessons.
“She is not only a brilliant performer, but also an amazing teacher,” Lamkin said. “Grace has a big support group at the university, from colleagues in the music department to faculty and administrators in other of our university colleges to a flock of students — all of whom brighten when her name is mentioned. They respect her to the utmost for her integrity, her artistry, her delightful personality and her masterful teaching.”