Youthful maestros to perform in Seattle International Piano Competition

October 18, 2011

By Tom Corrigan

Henry Gao, 10, practices at the keyboards in Issaquah’s Chopin Academy of Music. By Tom Corrigan

One is talkative, the other a little more quiet, but both are well spoken. They are roughly the same age and have the same ethnic background. They are friends, one getting a big smile on his face at the mention of the other’s name.

More importantly here, they attend the same piano school, the Chopin Academy of Music in Issaquah. They have the same teacher in Ivona Kaminska. They are also two of only eight finalists for their age group in the Seattle International Piano Competition to take place Oct. 22-23 at Benaroya Hall.

“I think I’m very lucky … It feels really exciting,” said Henry Gao, who just turned 10.

At 8, his friend Arthur Yan is following in the footsteps of older brother Robert, 11, who won a gold medal at the same competition in 2009.

Arthur and Henry will be competing in the 9 and under age category, as Henry was 9 when his audition tape won him a spot in the event.

Henry started playing at age 5. Mom Di Ding said her son didn’t take to the piano immediately.

“After several months, he progressed very fast,” she said.

“I could see from the beginning that he has exceptional talent,” Kaminska said.

At one point, she added she’s very proud to have two of her students in a competition with entries from around the world.

All in all, eight countries will be represented at the competition.

Both Arthur and Henry have played at large venues, such as Benaroya and Meydenbauer Center, in the past. Henry said he’s always nervous before performing, but usually calms down once he starts playing.

“I like performing in front of people as well as winning prizes,” Henry said, adding he loves the reaction he gets from audiences.

Arthur just started playing piano two years ago, a fact which mom Feng Xu said makes his getting into the Seattle competition even more special.

“I like playing,” Arthur said. “It’s a lot of fun.”

“He feels good when he’s on the stage,” Xu said.

Neither Henry’s nor Arthur’s parents are musicians themselves. Xu did say she has a special love for music, saying it has a transcendence or spirituality to it.

“I believe music is a very important part of their education,” she added.

Arthur Yan, 8, sits in front of the piano at his home. Contributed

For her part, Kaminska certainly agrees. She said sports and athletes get plenty of attention in public schools, but the arts often seem to suffer from neglect.

“That’s what helps make us human is art,” Kaminska said.

Henry and Arthur seem dedicated to the piano, but they also love video games and Henry said he enjoys playing basketball and doing magic tricks. He’s not shy about showing off a card trick.

For the future, neither boy is sure music will be his life’s work.

“I’m very proud of him,” Ding said of her son.

But she also said as Henry grows older, it will be up to him to decide what to do with his life.

Arthur said music might be in his future long term, but he just isn’t sure. For now, he hopes he can get into the Seattle International competition again next year.

“I can have the chance to get two gold medals,” he said.

Tom Corrigan: 392-6434, ext. 241, or Comment at

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