Performing Arts Fort Worth today will present the Bayard H. Friedman Award for Outstanding Student in Performing Arts. One of the co-winners is a 15-year-old pianist who is already a college senior. KERA’s Stephen Becker reports the teenager accelerated his development by living with his piano teachers:
- KERA radio story:
- Expanded online version:
Owings chairs the piano department at Texas Christian University. His wife, Cordelia, also teaches piano.
Sahan, who goes by Sam, has lived with them since 2005. And 24 hour access to your teacher can also turn into a 24 hour lesson:
JOHN: “I thought you were going to practice this slowly. That’s not slowly! That’s one of the things that he hears very often.” [laughs]
SAM: “That’s part of my life. … It’s good though. It’s good to have an alarm clock that doesn’t have a snooze button.”
Sam was born in South Korea and began playing the piano at age 4. He moved with his family to Florida in 2002. When the family moved to Fort Worth later that year, Sam’s piano teacher in Florida called Owings to see if he would listen to Sam play and recommend a teacher. At that point, Owings had only taught advanced college students.
JOHN: “The more I heard, and the more I got to know Sam, the more I realized this is a real, genuine talent. So I came home and talked to Cordelia and told her about this, and she said, ‘You’ve got to take him. You’ve got to teach him. Because you won’t mess him up.’”
Sam flourished under Owings’s tutelage. But after a year and a half in Fort Worth, Sam’s family moved again – this time to San Diego. The move stunted Sam’s piano growth. He nearly gave up the instrument.
Word got back to the Owings. The couple asked Sam’s parents if he would like to come live and study with them.
To facilitate the arrangement, the Owings became Sam’s legal guardians and enrolled him at Fort Worth ISD’s William James Middle School, which has a program for gifted students. The only problem is, there is gifted and there is gifted. And Sam was gifted. In addition to being a piano savant, Sam was also a math whiz. And his 6th grade classes were boring him. When some other kids began bullying Sam, it became clear it was time to leave middle school behind.
CORDELIA: “John went down and started playing Pomp and Circumstance, Sam joined him at the other piano. And then he had an interview at TCU, and based only on the interview they accepted him as a full-time regular student. So he actually is a 6th grade non-finisher.”
Sam finished his fourth year as a piano major at TCU this month. After visiting his parents, he’ll return to campus to study for at least one more year before deciding what to do next.
Until then, Sam’s got his hands full. He’ll compete in the prestigious Cooper Competition at Oberlin College in Ohio this summer. And he’s already set his sights on the 2017 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. He’ll miss the 19-year-old age requirement for the 2013 competition by just a few weeks.
Sam’s long-term goal is a teaching and performing career. He points to two events that solidified his decision to build his life around the instrument.
The first was performing in area schools as part of the Cliburn Foundation’s Musical Awakenings program.
SAM: “Sharing the gift of classical music with other children my age … things like that really showed me the value of music. That’s probably what laid the foundation for my confidence in wanting to become a pianist later on.”
The other was performing with the TCU Symphony Orchestra in 2008 after winning the school’s concerto competition.
Still the question remains – how can a 15-year-old be so sure of his life’s path?
Is there any chance he could abandon the piano for another career?
SAM: “No. … Is that one word enough?”
In a word: Yes.
Visit Sahun Hong’s YouTube channel to watch several videos of his performances.