When we look at musicians, we often only see a flurry pizzicato plucking on strings, impossible piano fingerings, and hundreds of immobile black splotches on staves that seem to move with the passage of time. To the audience, the music is a finished product, though it's rarely complete in the mind of a musician. We hear the music but frequently overlook the performer and what it took to learn it.
It's true -- violinist and Philadelphia native Sarah Chang is a child prodigy. But Chang is also someone blessed to have been able to do what she loves ever since she was a little girl. Her childhood memories are full of encouragement and music, mostly inspired by her parents.
Her father is a violinist who studied with the late violin instructor Dorothy Delay, who also taught Itzhak Perlman, and her mother is a composer. Having such musical parents did have an effect on Chang.
"[My favorite] memory is probably my dad playing. My mom put me on the piano when I was about three and a half," Chang says. "I remember him practicing and wanting the same instrument that he played. I remember him not letting me touch his violin, so they got me a 1/16 size [violin] when I was four. And that's how I started."
When she was six years old, Chang attended Juilliard's Pre-College Division, a professional music program for students 17 and under. Classes were held on Saturdays with an all day schedule of music theory, orchestra, solfege, and private lessons. Chang also took lessons with Delay.
But her parents made every effort to make sure Chang didn't feel pressured in any way. Through the performances and traveling back and forth from Philly to New York, Chang is grateful to her parents for always maintaining normalcy in childhood.
"I remember Mom saying, 'If this isn't fun for you, we don't really need to do this every week,'" Chang says. "The thing is, I loved going to New York. I loved going to the shops and us making a whole weekend out of it. It was a lot of fun."
As normal as her life was, Chang was still able to do something very few children even think about. By age ten, Chang recorded her first studio album with EMI Records called Debut. The recording was something new for both Chang and EMI.
"It was very, very exciting. Since it was my first recording, I had no idea what I was doing," Chang says. "But they were very honest. They said they had never recorded with anyone that young. Not only was it my age but it was also the fact that I was so tiny that I was using a quarter size violin at that time and nobody had ever recorded on a quarter sized [violin]."
After 20 years of performing, part of Chang's development as a musician was recognizing her own skill level, embracing it, and growing with time. One of Chang's favorite composers is Johannes Brahms but many years passed before she felt ready to play his pieces.
"Brahms is a composer I've always loved but for a very long time felt that I wasn't ready to play. So I learned the concerto and the sonatas when I was very young as a student when I was at Juilliard, and then I put it away and didn't even attempt to go onstage with it, because I felt that I needed a little more time," Chang says. "So even the concerto, I only started playing in public when I was 18. I waited almost ten years before feeling confident enough to put it down on tape."
Sarah Chang recently played at a benefit concert in March 2010 at USC, where she performed Max Bruch's "Concerto No. 1," a well known, popular concerto. Chang will play with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl in August. She looks forward to performing each and every time, as it is her "bread and butter."
"I love being onstage, so that is the ultimate for me... having a live audience in front of you. There's nothing that comes even close to that; it's something very special that you can't even put into words," Chang says. "It's a completely different level of an adrenaline rush that you get than anything else."