Proms debut holds no fear for the 'Little Mozart'

A nine-year-old prodigy puts his success down to practice... and his mother. By Sarah Cassidy
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The Independent Culture

He has been nicknamed Little Mozart and, at nine years old, has only recently grown tall enough to reach the foot pedals of a grand piano.

On Sunday, Marc Yu, from Los Angeles, will make his debut at the Royal Albert Hall as one of the youngest-ever performers to play at the 114-year-old Proms.

"Of course I'm not nervous," said Marc, with a confidence beyond his years. "The bigger the audience, the better I play. I will feel nervous if I'm not well prepared but that's not usual. It's exciting and exhilarating to be on stage. When I go on the stage there's nothing more exciting than feeling that yourself, the orchestra and the audience are in total harmony."

Marc practises the piano for up to eight hours a day, but says he still has time to play in the park with his friends. He dismisses the idea that his practice schedule is overly demanding. "I like ping-pong, telling jokes, swimming and playing with my friends. Because I am home-schooled I have more time to play when I am at home because I do not have to go to school – unlike other children who are confined in school for seven hours a day. That's a lot of work for them."

Marc made his concert debut, on the piano and the cello, at six – the same age as Mozart when he gave his first performance in 1762.

At the Proms, Marc will perform a duet, Schubert's Fantasia in F Minor, with the flamboyant Chinese pianist Lang Lang, who played at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. "Lang Lang has always been my idol," said Marc. "He is perfect musically and also perfect at getting the audience into the music."

Marc began playing the piano at a friend's birthday party in Los Angeles when he was two. As children sang "Mary Had a Little Lamb", he toddled over to the piano and started tapping out the tune with two fingers. This astonished his Chinese-born mother, Chloe, because it was the first time Marc had ever been near a piano.

Six months later, he gave his first public recital, playing Beethoven. When he was three, Marc realised he was thinking about music more than anyone else his age. Because he could concentrate and hear the logic behind the music, he excelled and quickly won national piano prizes after two years of lessons.

An only child, he credits his 34-year-old mother for nurturing his talent because she played Beethoven CDs to him when he was in the womb and now acts as his tutor, manager and travelling companion. "If I have a gift from God, it is my mom who is my angel," he said.

"I try not to think about what a huge responsibility it is," said Mrs Yu. "I never expected when I was pregnant with Marc that he would be a prodigy. I played music to him before he was born just because I hoped it would help him develop a love of music.

"I am no expert but I believe that it is more nurture than nature so children should not be discouraged because they are not born with an obvious talent. It is not easy to become a virtuoso – it takes a lot of work and dedication." "And sacrifice," interrupts her son cheerfully.

Marc is educated at home by his mother and a tutor to give him the flexibility to travel and perform, while allowing him to learn at his own pace. Mrs Yu said: "What other children learn in eight hours a day he can squeeze into 30 minutes or an hour. This way, he can learn whatever he is interested in at that moment."

Marc studies music composition at the Colburn School Conservatory of Music in Los Angeles, and flies to China for lessons at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. Marc said: "I like playing music because it has a lot of different feelings – expressive, sad, excited and happy. Music is just full of emotions – that's what I love about it. I like playing difficult pieces, especially those that my teacher says no to. Practice really does make perfect."

Marc's performance is at 4pm tomorrow. The concert is sold out but will be live on BBC Radio 3 and BBC4 at 7.30pm.

Other child geniuses from the world of music

Yehudi Menuhin

The American-born violinist, who died in 1999 at 82, was a child prodigy who went on to become one of the 20th century's finest musicians. He debuted in San Francisco at the age of seven and, by 13, had performed in London, Paris and Berlin. Albert Einstein said after hearing him: "Now I know there is a God in heaven."

Jacqueline du Pré

The English cellist who died of multiple sclerosis in 1987 at the age of 42, is one of the greatest-ever players of the instrument. Aged four, du Pré is said to have heard a cello on the radio and asked her mother for "one of those". She had lessons from her mother before studying at the London Violoncello School from the age of five.

Daniel Barenboim

The Israeli pianist and conductor started piano lessons at five with his mother, continuing to study with his father Enrique, who remained his only teacher. In 1950, when he was seven, he gave his first formal concert in Buenos Aires.

Lang Lang

The flamboyant pianist, 26, is treated like a rock star in his native China. He began having lessons at the age of three and just two years later won the Shenyang Piano Competition.