ALAMEDA -- When 16-year-old Michelle Zhang sits down at her piano to play Bach's Italian Concerto at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Oakland on Sept. 22, her goal will be far more than just to play the notes correctly. She wants to present the entire movement beautifully.
"If it's not up to concert standards I feel bad because I am not doing the piece justice," said the Alameda High School junior. "It should be performed at a level where you make it sound beautiful."
Zhang -- who has been playing piano since age 6 and violin since age 5 -- is the featured performer at the Sept. 22 recital to benefit the Young People's Symphony Orchestra, the oldest independent youth orchestra in California.
"Michelle is one of the best young pianists I have taught in recent years," said Holy Names University Preparatory Music Program instructor Kent Tchii. "Not only her musicality and technicality ... but her ability and talent of comprehending the music presented to her. She is one of the few musicians of such quality in the music world."
A talent of such magnitude is not developed overnight. It takes time, instruction and practice, lots of practice. Born in Oakland, Zhang moved to Alameda when she was 2 with her mother Cindy, who works as an accountant, and her father Joe, who manages Japan Engines in San Leandro. But the move didn't change the family's musical involvement, which remained firmly rooted in the Oakland hills at Holy Names University.
"When a student begins learning an instrument at a young age, both parent and teacher really don't know where it is going to take them," Revelli said. "Parent and child must give a tremendous amount of long-term commitment for success. Music, for Michelle, became something she really wanted in her life -- it was obvious at an early age."
At 11, Zhang joined the Young People's Symphony Orchestra and is now first-chair violin. This year, she won the orchestra's concerto competition as a pianist and then won the Holy Names University program concerto competition as a violinist. It's rare for any musician, especially someone as young as Zhang, to be so accomplished on two different and difficult instruments at the same time. Her initial concentration was more on violin, but lately she has "gotten more involved" with piano, she said. She likes both equally for different reasons.
"They both have their own special unique aspects," Zhang explained. "Violin is more something that you play with others, like in an orchestra, while the piano is usually played solo, like in concertos."
She enjoys both seats, one in the first chair and the other on the piano bench in the spotlight. Either way, it's all about doing justice to the music.
"After I play, if I know I've done a good job, it feels really good," she said.
Getting there -- and staying there -- takes a lot of work. Juggling a heavy scholastic schedule of advanced placement classes as well as practicing on two different instruments is a tall order, but the dedicated teen keeps it all in stride.
"To me, it's not really about how much time I spend," Zhang said. "It's more how much I get out of the practice, how many trouble spots I fixed and if the pieces are better than before."
She works on a couple of pieces every day, she said. Even if she's not currently practicing a particular piece, she runs through it just to make sure she doesn't forget anything. That doesn't leave much time for socializing, but Zhang doesn't mind.
"I spend plenty of time talking with my friends at school," she said. Scholastic achievement remains a top priority for Zhang, who hasn't yet decided what she wants to do, but hopes to go to the UC Berkeley or Stanford. She doesn't plan to pursue a career as a professional musician, but she definitely intends to continue to study and play.
"I'll continue to take music classes during college," Zhang said. "I don't think it's going to go away, ever."
Her music teachers agree. Music is a part of who she is and always will be.
"She is a pleasure to work with, always focused and dedicated to learning more," Revelli said. "For Michelle, music has become a language of her heart."
The piano recital to benefit Young People's Symphony Orchestra is at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 22 with the silent auction at 6:30 p.m. at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, 114 Montecito Ave. in Oakland. For tickets and information, call 510-849-9776 or visit www.ypsomusic.net.
WHAT: Piano recital benefit for Young People's Symphony Orchestra
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 22 with silent auction at 6:30 p.m.
WHERE: St. Paul's Episcopal Church, 114 Montecito Ave., Oakland
COST: $20 for adults, $10 for students and seniors
INFORMATION: For tickets and more information, call 510-849-9776 or visit www.ypsomusic.net