Gift of music brings her visions

February 24, 2006|by TIFFANY ARNOLD


The funny part was that the audience saw only a "poker face" during Hsiang-Yu "Jessie" Chen's piano solo at a YMCA Black History Month event Monday.

"You almost could hear me chuckle," said Barbara E. Wischmeier, one of Chen's music instructors, who stood behind her during the show.

Their inside joke: Chen was playing mostly from memory and had lost her place on the page of sheet music.

"I was going and going, but then I realized I had lost track," Chen, 18, said. "But I couldn't stop. I just made up some chords."


Nobody could tell the difference, Wischmeier said.

Chen's ability to improvise is only part of the reason why the local music community considers Chen, a senior at Saint James School, a standout musician.

"I think music's chosen her," said Wischmeier, chairwoman of Saint James School's Fine Arts Department. "It's a part of her that has always been there. She's developed it. It's a gift she's been given."

The Maryland Symphony Orchestra named Chen its February High School Musician of the Month. Chen plays at school recitals and in a piano trio led by Heather Austin-Stone, assistant concertmaster for the Maryland Symphony Orchestra.

"If I start thinking about graduation, I think I'll cry," Wischmeier said.

Chen started playing the piano when she was 4. She moved from Taipei, Taiwan, four years ago to attend Saint James, a private boarding school.

She recalled growing up in Taiwan, where she participated in school recitals and learned to play "make believe" while her fingers flew over the keys.

While playing classical music, her preferred genre, she said she envisions women in petticoats and powdered wigs. When the music gets loud - or fortissimo - that vision transforms into a tornado attacking a fleet of boats.

She said some of those visions were on her mind Monday, as she played Beethoven's "Sonata in E Minor" at the YMCA.

She said it had been a while since she last played the song, her father's favorite.

Her father, Yuchuang Chen, is an affluent businessman in Taiwan, Chen said.

Most of her family lives in Taiwan, although her brother Henry, a Saint James graduate, lives in Texas.

Her family visits often, Chen said, and she goes home to visit every summer.

During her stay at Saint James, Chen said she's learned to better evoke emotion through music.

Wischmeier said Chen has taught her a lesson, too.

"You can share your dreams with music," Wischmeier said. "It doesn't have to be just music."

Chen, who plays varsity volleyball and lacrosse, said she plans to pursue a degree in either science or math while also pursuing a music degree.

She said music will always be a part of her life, but she didn't plan to become a professional musician.

"It's going to be something I do, but not the only thing," Chen said.

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