East Meets West -September/October 2011

by: Terry Pommett

photography by: Terry Pommett

Since arriving on Nantucket in 2005 with her mother and stepfather, Yin and Brian Fitzgibbon, JUNYI WANG has made a name for herself. The mainland Chinese immigrant is an accomplished classical pianist on her way to a musical future that is the result of the skillful blending of local and foreign cultures.

Junyi gave a performance for relatives at a music school in the city of Zhaoqing, where her teacher lived.

It is difficult to imagine a 10-year-old making the rapid transition the way Junyi has. She spoke not a word of English when she arrived and knew little of American society. The only experience she had was limited to the interaction with her stepfather and whatever glimpses she stole from Western television broadcasts in her hometown of Shenzhen, China.

Junyi started playing piano at the age of 4, not uncommon in Chinese society, where children begin musical training at the earliest possible age. She remembers the years of routine, instruction and practice.

“I played every day and didn’t enjoy practicing but my mom pushed me. My teacher was young and very good at technique, but not much more,” said Junyi, now 16.

Two years in a conservatory, following her initial instruction period, led to her first competition in Hong Kong, which she won. With success came increased pressure.

“The conservatory was nerve-wracking. It was very competitive and the kids would criticize you if you made mistakes,” Junyi said. She practiced four hours a day during that period, including individual instruction twice a week and had academic and group theory classes to attend as well.

Coming to the United States was to some degree a relief. Assimilating into society and learning the language was relatively painless, perhaps because the stress of the conservatory had been lifted.

“Everyone my age loves the States in China. I had no fun in school there but it’s great here. People are always friendly,” she said.

Probably the toughest transition was adapting to American food. The fast-food chains of Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald’s, now widespread in China, were all she had experienced of American food. Fortunately, after she moved to Nantucket her mother kept her culinary traditions alive each night with a Chinese meal. Shrimp dumpling soup was a favorite, and the pair early on ate lots of stir-fries, made with ingredients from the Stop & Shop and trips to Chinatown.

Yet there was still the question of how Junyi would advance her musical skills living on an island 30 miles at sea. It soon became clear there was only one real choice, and that was to take lessons from Tinka Knopf de Esteban. Well-known to classical-music lovers on the island, Knopf is a 13th- generation Nantucketer (she’s a Macy) and master pianist who has received her bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees from the Peabody Conservatory of Music at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Her list of accomplishments are lengthy, including associate dean at the Peabody Conservatory, past president of the Eastern Division of Music Teachers National Association and the first person in the country to receive a doctorate of musical arts in 1965. Knopf had the experience, without question, to help advance Junyi’s career. She has taught two national Baldwin winners and one runner-up in piano, and one of her students won the Premiere Prix de Paris, an acclaimed international competition. Locally, she is an advisor to the board of the Nantucket Community Music Center and usually takes on six to seven kids at a time, two lessons a week for each.

After auditioning with Knopf, Junyi was accepted as her pupil.

“I’m familiar with Chinese students. I’m aware of the difficulties they face. They have the techniques down but not the Western heart you need when you play European music. The challenge is to open the interior soul, because they are playing something foreign to their culture. I try to open a door, open new worlds for them,” Knopf said.

She has observed that the Chinese can play with, and even outplay, anybody intellectually, but to open their hearts she employs effective, unorthodox teaching techniques. She climbs all over them verbally and physically in rapid staccato outbursts, always somehow in rhythm. Keeping cadence, she’ll crawl under the piano and guide their feet on the pedals and then jump up and maneuver their hands across the keyboard, all while the student is playing. It seems to be an exercise in controlled chaos, yet is very effective.

“I’m copying what Walter Hautzig (the first American artist to perform in China after diplomatic relations thawed in 1979) taught me. He was on my faculty. Kids are just opening emotionally and they respond to this. It shows them how to turn it up to express something, to capture the audience without destroying the actual style of the composer,” Knopf said.

“Tinka is very different than my teachers in China, who were quiet and less energetic,” Junyi said. “She’s on top of me and yells a lot. I like it. She’s an inspiration. She has me video my lessons so I won’t forget. My skills have increased tremendously since I became her student. She’s great. I love her.”

Through Knopf, Junyi was able to meet Hautzig in New York City where she was given a private demonstration and played in Steinway Hall. Hautzig felt she was very gifted but needed to develop more of a romantic, interpretative style. One of Nantucket’s biggest drawbacks to exceptional students is the lack of a competitive environment and the opportunity to observe different styles of playing.

“When Americans think ‘competition,’ they think sports. But music takes more discipline than sport,” Knopf said.

Junyi spent a summer at Michigan’s Interlochen Fine Arts Academy, studied with world-renowned pianist and teacher Julie Cheek and received the fine-art award for best piano student.

She has played in concert numerous times on-island including performances at the Unitarian Meeting House, St. Paul’s Church, The Nantucket Whaling Museum, The Homestead and Sherburne Commons elderly-living facilities.

During the school break in December 2010, Junyi and her parents returned to China for the first time since she left five years ago. It was an emotional and enlightening experience for her, reconnecting with her father and half-sister Yunting, a 5-year-old budding pianist, as well as uncles, aunts and her grandmother. She was feted everywhere she went.

“It was emotional to return and see all my relatives. It brought back so many memories. I didn’t get to see my old friends, they’ve all scattered. But I saw my professor and it was awesome eating all the good Chinese food,” she said.

Junyi’s hobbies are the same as those of most kids her age on Nantucket: hanging out with friends, Facebook and Internet surfing, movies, photography, drawing and the beach.

Her musical interests, however, are more expansive.

“I like jazz, Scott Joplin and Norah Jones and listening to Chopin, Liszt and Beethoven. Oh yeah, and the Beatles,” she said.

Now entering her senior year at Nantucket High School, the honor student from China is preparing for a future life in an American conservatory. All the top schools are on her short list – Juilliard, Curtis Institute, Mannes College, New England Conservatory – and of course, Peabody.

“I love the piano and music in general, I love chamber music and want to do different things, but mostly classical. I want to be a musician, to perform and to teach,” she said.

Wherever she lands, it’ll simply be the beginning of another journey that began halfway around the globe. 

Latest issue...

To view the magazine full size, click the image above.