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Alhambra Piano Prodigy Is Building a Strong Reputation in Classical Music

Marc Soong during his "From the Top" performance on NPR. Photo courtesy of Marc Soong.


Alhambra , CA

Marc Soong, started playing piano when he was two years old, after watching his older sister, who was four at the time, play and thinking that it would be cool to try that as well.

Soon he was playing in piano competitions, having entered his first one at the age of five. While growing up in Alhambra, Soong, now 16, was practicing four hours a day in middle school at the Barnhart School, a private K-8 school in nearby Arcadia. For the past eight years, Soong has studied with Dr. Vladimir Khomyakov and Professor Daniel Pollack, both from the USC Thornton School of Music. He visits Khomyakov’s apartment in Redondo Beach every week, and has a lesson in Pollack’s studio each month. He usually preps a piece more with Khomyakov before showing a piece to Prof. Pollack.

His sister, now a rising sophomore at Washington University in St. Louis who is double-majoring in music and philosophy-neuroscience-psychology, sometimes duets with Soong. She has also played in competitions. Soong’s mother used to play piano for fun while his dad sang in high school, but neither do so seriously anymore.

Soong has won awards at various piano competitions, including the Los Angeles Young Musicians International Competition, the Steinway Piano Competition, and the 2018 ENKOR International Music Competition, where he won the grand prize.

Competitions are essential for those who want to become professional concert pianists, or even for young pianists who want to get into an elite college. Participants prepare pieces and panels of music professionals judge them and award prizes based on technique and artistry.

For Soong, it’s stressful trying to guess what the judges are looking for. “You never know which mode to switch on,” he said. Fellow competitors rarely interact during the proceedings. “There’s always some tense environment that’s going on that I don’t really enjoy.”

The competitions have given Soong a lot of opportunities. This past March, he performed his first solo concert near Atlanta, after Soong won the ENKOR International Music Competition.

His highest profile opportunity yet was taping “From the Top,” a classical music program that airs on various National Public Radio stations, and features young classical musicians playing a variety of instruments. Soong was invited to participate in “From the Top’s” Jan. 16 taping, in Beaver Creek, Colorado, where he played a piano paraphrase on Figaro’s aria from the opera “Barber of Seville.”

Soong says this piece, which was introduced to him by his piano teacher last year, is both dynamic and technically challenging. “It’s a very virtuosic piece. All the hard-sounding parts are easy and all the easy-sounding parts are hard.”

“There’s a constant drive to the piece, yet there’s still space for more emotion.”

There were some stressful parts to the “From the Top” taping, with Soong having to participate in long rehearsals. “It takes a lot of time and effort to make the recording work out,” he said.

Overall, he found the environment more relaxing than a typical competition. This was especially true when he and his fellow musicians performed for children, as part of “From the Top’s” efforts to promote arts education.

“It was great because you got to directly interact and play all these weird mini-games and stuff,” he said.

And he found playing in front of a large audience exhilarating. As an experienced pianist, Soong rarely gets nervous playing in front of people. “Most of the nervousness goes away when I press the first key,” he said. “The little mistakes don’t really matter to me that much. I just move on, I don’t really care, as long as I maintain a certain character.”

He now practices for two hours each day, while juggling homework as a student at the Stanford University Online High School. Besides music, Soong excels at math, connecting with it because of how it allows people to make sense of a topic. “Everything ties to each other and the more you understand, the more you go like, ‘Ah, now this makes sense!’” he said.

In an interview for “From the Top,” Soong discussed how piano helps him with his math, and in general, he finds that math and music go hand-in-hand.

“Bach is a perfect demonstration of why music can be related to math – in his fugues, he brilliantly combines just three to four different voices, all alternating between the main motif [subject] and others [the counter subjects], and all the voices constantly fit harmonically,” he wrote in an email.

But while piano can help him figure out a tough math problem, he doesn’t understand how this process works. “For me, I really cannot explain why there is a connection between music and math. Playing the piano somehow randomly helps me arrive at an answer when I am stuck on a question.”

He doesn’t plan on becoming a concert pianist, but wants to apply to five-year university programs, and earn a bachelor’s degree in applied math and a master’s in music. He’s interested in a math-related career, but doesn’t know what that would look like just yet.

Soong performed at the Aspen Music Festival in June, and will perform a concerto with the San Fernando Valley Orchestra at the Calabasas Performing Arts Center on Sept. 21.

His favorite piano composers include Frederic Chopin (“no pianist can dislike Chopin”), and Robert Schumann, who is “a composer that is very personal, and while his music is hard to listen to, I often find his wide range of emotions very relatable.”

In the meantime, he is trying to perfect Rachmaninoff’s études, which have Soong’s preferred mix of technical complexity and emotion.

“The thing about those etudes is that the harmonic progressions are so complex, and there’s a lot of texture to the piece,” he said. “I think when I played one of his etudes, I just felt all of the emotions surging through me, and I think that’s what I really enjoy about playing the piano.”

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