Child’s Play

At nine, Carrollton’s Albert Wong can barely reach the piano pedals. But his talent is nothing short of prodigious.

February 1999By Comments

WHEN ALBERT WONG was one and a half years old, he sang perfectly the words to the recorded Chinese songs his mother played while rocking him to sleep. When he was three, he could read and count to one hundred and was curious about infinity and negative numbers. At three and a half Albert decided he wanted to learn how to play the piano. At five he started taking lessons from a music professor at the University of North Texas in Denton, and at six he began giving recitals at the university. When he was eight, he was featured at the opening of the Texas Steinway Society’s concert season. And on January 1, his feet barely reaching the piano’s pedals, he celebrated his ninth birthday by playing with the Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth in its annual all-Mozart New Year’s program. “A remarkable talent,” raved the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “He has already conquered the issue of volume control in Mozart—the elusive ability to project an accent or forte without destroying the delicacy of the music.”

“As far as raw talent, he could go just about as far as he wants—he could be a top professional pianist if he wants to,” says UNT’s Joseph Banowetz, who has been Albert’s private teacher since September 1995. “I’ve seen child prodigies before, but not a lot at this level.” Is Albert the next Van Cliburn? Maybe. The most charismatic four-foot-four concert pianist in the Metroplex? Definitely. At an age when most kids choke up during the school play, Albert lives to perform. “I don’t get nervous,” he says. “There is nothing to worry about.”

He certainly seemed relaxed at the Steinway Society concert last October. He and Banowetz played a duet—three of Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances—sitting side by side, Banowetz on a regular piano bench, Albert on his own, taller one. As he played, his face showed the intensity of a child entranced by a video game—and the faces of women in the audience changed from the serious expressions of music lovers at a classical concert to the soft countenances of mothers and grandmothers. Albert’s tiny fingers flew, the notes, tempo, and passion belying his years. “If he plays any faster than that, I’m going to have a heart attack,” Banowetz said afterward, laughing.

Albert is a seasoned performer. A year and a half earlier, he had made his orchestra debut with the Northeast Orchestra at Fort Worth’s First Baptist Church. Before the concert, he stretched his fingers on a few pieces backstage, tapping his feet in the air to keep time because they didn’t touch the floor. After making his entrance and taking a bow, hands stiff at his sides, he played Bach’s Concerto in F Minor, a fifteen-minute piece that is often recorded by professional concert pianists and played by very talented students who are usually at least old enough to drive. Albert played it perfectly. From memory.

As usual, his mother had stayed backstage during the performance. During longer recitals, Albert likes to take a quick break after every piece or two. He walked backstage, got a hug and an encouraging word from Mom, then went back to his piano. “I need her back there so I can have a hug,” he explained later. “It keeps me from getting lonely.”

After three standing ovations, Albert gave an encore, performing “Run, Run” by Octavio Pinto, which he calls a “show-off” piece. His hands were a blur and his full cheeks vibrated as he pounded the keyboard. The music began at such a fast pace, Albert looked like a child banging randomly on the family piano. But the notes were right. “I don’t know any professional who would want to compete with that,” Banowetz said after the performance, as audience and orchestra members lined up for Albert’s autograph, which the then second grader was proud to show he could write in cursive. “It was flawless. It’s intimidating, even for me.”

Albert lives with his parents, Yen-Lih Chang and Chi-Pong Wong, in the upscale Dallas suburb of Carrollton. Yen-Lih and Chi-Pong moved to the United States from Taiwan in 1981 and to Dallas in 1990. Both are engineers with two master’s degrees apiece, but when Albert was born, Yen-Lih quit her job to stay home with him.

Nobody quotes Albert’s IQ (he’s never even been tested). Nobody wants to see him in high school by age ten. Nobody wants to push him beyond his limits—whatever they may be. “Music takes up so much time,” says Yen-Lih. “He also loves to bike, go to the playground, play in the water, play with his friends. I feel a lot of responsibility. I don’t want him to overdo it. I don’t want him to underdo it.”

Albert became fascinated with the piano after his father took him to a piano concert that he found “very interesting.” Recalls Yen-Lih, “I said, ‘How about the violin? It’s cheaper.’” Who knew they would soon be buying a $50,000 Steinway? “We told him, ‘This is like half of our house,’” she says. Perhaps it was the power of suggestion, but two years later Albert did in fact pick up the violin—and has been featured in a Christmas concert with the Dallas Chamber Orchestra. He now takes lessons from James Lerch, the retired head of the strings department at UNT. At a recent session, after demonstrating his progress on a Schubert piece, Albert showed his teacher how his tennis shoes glowed in the dark. While the piano is his primary talent, he clearly qualifies as a prodigy on the violin too, and recently graduated from a quarter-size instrument to a half-size.

Albert is a gifted child on many levels. He spent the 1996–97 school year as a second grader at Indian Creek Elementary, a few blocks from home. He started the next school year in the third grade there, but Yen-Lih now homeschools him. At Indian Creek, Albert spent his days learning about dinosaurs, coloring, and playing memory games. In most areas he excelled far beyond his classmates. In others, like art, he was clumsy. Art is something you study in the first grade, which Albert skipped. Once, when Albert was especially frustrated with school, Banowetz gave him a Tickle Me Elmo doll to cheer him up.

In the first few months of being taught at home, Albert went through fourth-grade math in six weeks; he is now learning sixth-grade English and has completed eighth-grade math. He starts the day at eight o’clock, eating breakfast in the company of his mom, good music, and one of his favorite books—Tom Sawyer, perhaps, or a biography of Thomas Edison. Instead of rushing home to do homework and practice, he now has time to play with friends, go to Boy Scout meetings and free concerts at local universities, jump on his trampoline, read from his shelf of library books, and play with his Beanie Babies in his futon bed, which is under a tent set up in his bedroom.

The Wong home clearly revolves around its youngest member. Albert’s parents have decorated the kitchen and family area with educational posters: the ABC’s, numbers one to one hundred, geometric shapes, the solar system, safety signs, a map of the continents, and taped to the side of the oven, the multiplication tables. The shiny black Steinway dominates the dining room.

Yen-Lih and Chi-Pong had no preparation for any of this. Neither is the least bit musically gifted, although they enjoy listening to music (their CD collection, which used to be all country and folk, is now heavy on classical music).

So where does a boy like Albert get his talent? “You open up a whole can of worms when you get into the nature or nurture argument,” says Joseph Renzulli, the director of the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented at the University of Connecticut. “The important issue is that the environment is what we have control over. We can expose him to the great musicians and maestros of the world.” Following their instincts, the Wongs have done exactly that from the moment they realized they had a gifted child.

Such a child, of course, does not come with instructions or fit a mold. When Albert was a baby, for instance, he crawled more slowly than the books said he should. “But one day he started walking,” Yen-Lih says, “and he never fell down.” And so the challenge to his parents began.

Keeping up with an above-average child takes the commitment of an above-average parent. The Steinway. The private piano lessons every Thursday night. The violin lessons twice a week. The homeschooling. The concerts. The questions. “It’s very difficult to answer him sometimes,” says Chi-Pong. “He wants to know how the digestive system works. He wants to know where the Earth came from. He asked about all of this before he was in kindergarten.”

Albert’s parents insist that they are happy to devote so much time and money to their son. Perhaps it is their Asian upbringing, they say. “It is quite common in the United States for parents to have a baby-sitter to have a night out,” Chi-Pong says. “Of course, we would like a night out, but we would never think to get a baby-sitter. For others, it might seem a big sacrifice. But for us, it’s normal.”

Albert is always pushing. “I practice harder on the weekends because I have more time,” he says. That he can play a Schubert sonatina on his violin and then sit down at the piano and play an entire Bach concerto isn’t enough. He’s almost obsessed with his inability to play a number of pieces on the piano because his hands simply are not large enough to span an entire octave.

Such drive is normal in gifted children, according to Renzulli. “Youngsters in all areas, whether they’re athletically or musically talented, feel frustrated because they can’t do certain things,” he says. “I don’t think they push for the recognition. People, children, enter creative endeavors because they hope to make an impact on an audience. Albert wants people to enjoy his music, to make people happy. Perhaps that’s why he challenges his talent.”

Renzulli’s advice to Albert’s parents? Keep it fun. “I wouldn’t push any youngster,” he says. “That doesn’t mean he can’t work at a level of time and commitment equal with that of much older kids, but there must be an enjoyment factor. Never push someone against his will. I really feel that could take away the motivation needed to carry on this gift.”

Yen-Lih is there to motivate her son—and to remind him that he is nine. “I’m not eager for him to skip grades,” she says. “Life is short. I hate to see him miss things. You graduate early—so what? He can do anything. I don’t want to set any goals yet just because he has a special talent in music. He might change his mind. If he doesn’t want to do it one day, that’s fine.”

As long as Albert is interested in the music, Renzulli encourages the Wongs to focus on that gift. “In general, we want kids to move evenly across with reading, writing, and arithmetic,” he says. “But it is a gift to be able to know you can concentrate and focus and excel in one area. Most people who are highly successful found that area and did a lot with it.”

Joseph Banowetz gave Albert’s life that focus. Until he met Albert, Banowetz had no interest in teaching children to play the piano. He has taught at UNT since 1973 and is featured on sixteen albums. He graduated from the Vienna Academy for Music and Dramatic Arts and has lectured at Juilliard in New York and at the Royal College of Music in London. He has played with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, the New Zealand Symphony, the Moscow State Symphony, and the Hong Kong Philharmonic, to name a few. And now he finds himself buying a Tickle Me Elmo doll for a student who, until recently, used a booster seat on the piano bench.

“I was prepared to listen to him, be very encouraging and polite, and recommend that he go somewhere else,” Banowetz admits. “I’d never taught a young child before. I thought it was all about cute pictures in books. I wanted to teach a more serious talent, using Mozart, Haydn, and Bach. There is no way you could do that with a regular child.”

One listen to Albert at the keyboard, and the professor knew that he was no regular child. And Albert had perfect pitch, meaning he could recognize and name a note merely by hearing it. This is not something you teach, Banowetz says. Musicians either have it or they don’t. More remarkable, Albert could name the notes in any chord Banowetz played, and even all the notes in a cluster when Banowetz banged the keys with his fist.

Now, most Thursday nights you’ll find Banowetz, Albert, and his parents sitting in a small room on the UNT campus. Yen-Lih passes out cardboard Tree Top juice containers and cookies. Banowetz and Albert discuss major and minor scales, octaves, and tempo; then Albert warms up with a series of scales. His fingers quickly run through the warm-up, each hand performing a different technical task with ease. To the untrained ear the scales, while impressive, sound simply like, well, scales. But they represent much more.

“At least half the people taking piano as a major or at a concentration level couldn’t do that,” Banowetz says. “Because of the complex hand movements and tempo, it is inconceivable that the average child his age could do that. Most top-level international concert pianists can do this, but they probably couldn’t at his age.” Unlike the adults surrounding him, Albert sees his talent as something quite simple. “It was a bit difficult when I played at first,” he says. “Now, it’s easy.” He enjoys a variety of composers: Bach, Chopin, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Liszt, Debussy. Actually, he hasn’t found anyone he doesn’t like: “All the pieces are different.”

So much talent in a little boy who hasn’t even mastered swimming yet. “The one thing I’m trying not to do is exploit him,” Banowetz says. “Burnout can be very destructive. I just want to see how far he can go and how far he wants to go. You can coach any student to a certain point, but if they’re not talented, it stops. So far, he hasn’t stopped.” Is Albert better than his devoted professor? “Not yet,” Banowetz says. “But any day now.”

Dawn McMullan is a Dallas-based freelance writer.

Related Content