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Instrumental to Prodigies' Success

Music: Pacific Symphony group lets young talents showcase their skills.


The nimble, commanding fingers of Derrick Van have played upon the keys of the Independence piano at the White House, following those of Presidents Harry Truman and Richard Nixon who have played it before.

Playing for an audience of ambassadors and congressmen is intimidating enough, but Derrick could not fall back upon years of experience to calm his nerves. He is just 15 years old.

Derrick is just one of many young musicians being cultivated by the Chinese-American League of the Orange County-based Pacific Symphony Orchestra.

Each year, the league hosts a Showcase for Young Musicians, which features the best young Chinese Americans from Orange County and throughout the state who play piano, violin or cello.

A winner in each instrument is chosen for the junior (ages 8-13) and senior (ages 14-21) divisions. All winners receive a cash prize and the senior division winners get a chance to play with the Pacific Symphony Orchestra during a concert.

The Showcase competition is the fulfillment of a dream for league founder Arlene Cheng, who dabbled in music when she was growing up.

"I just want to help kids with talent," said Cheng, a resident of Newport Beach. "I wanted to find a way to motivate them."

Cheng said that when she was growing up in

Malaysia, she had to walk more than a mile for her piano lessons.

"I didn't have the opportunity to concentrate on music back then, but I want to give these kids every chance to succeed."

Founded in 1992, the league was formed to strengthen the ties between the Pacific Symphony Orchestra and the Chinese American community. One result has been the cultivation of young musical talent.

The league is one of several ethnic groups the symphony works with, including Latinos and Vietnamese, but so far the Chinese American group is the only one offering a competition for young musicians.

"Here's a group who has a great deal of passion for music and developing young talent," said Louis Spisto, vice president and executive director of the Pacific Symphony. "They are bringing the next generation of musicians to the stages."

Spisto said that the league came up with the idea of the showcase and presented it to the symphony.

"The driving force behind the project is the league," he said. "They believe this is something worth working hard for."

Through the years, Spisto has seen an increasing emergence of young talent.

"They handle themselves with such maturity and composure, it's amazing," Spisto said. "This experience they're getting separates the serious from those who are just dabbling in music."

For Derrick, who won in the junior division for the piano in 1995, it is another steppingstone to a possible career in music.

"Before I get on stage I just think about my piece and how I'm going to interpret it," said Derrick, a freshman at University High School in Irvine. "I don't think of the audience. I go out and play the best that I can."

He has traveled the country performing for crowds, including last December when he played at the White House.

"That was very exciting," said Derrick, who still vividly remembers the day's events.

However, it wasn't always this glorious.

He was 6 years old when he heard his mother play the piano and immediately became interested.

"It was definitely frustrating at first because I wanted to start playing some of the great pieces," said Derrick, who eventually settled down and worked on basics.

He first realized his potential when he won a contest at the Bartok Festival, a piano teachers conference in San Diego. He won the 10-to-12-year-old division although he was only 9.

Although his love for the piano could lead him to a professional music career, Derrick wants to keep his options open, he said.

"I've wanted to be a doctor or something in the medical field, but I will always continue with piano," he said.

In the meantime, Derrick will continue to bring the sounds of Beethoven, Chopin and other Romantic-period composers to life by practicing two hours a day and meeting with his teacher every two weeks.

No matter which path he chooses, his parents will always be supportive of his decision.

"It's going to be up to him if he wants to pursue music or not," said Derrick's father, Ching-chiang. "Either way we're very proud of him."

In fact, classical music has brought the whole Van family closer together.

"Once Derrick began playing the piano, we made it a point to make classical music part of our lives," said his father. Derrick also plays the viola and has two younger sisters, both of whom play the violin.

Fourteen-year-old Eric Liang of Fullerton also has grown accustomed to performing in front of a large audience.

The violinist, who won the 1995 Showcase in the junior division for violin, has been a member of the several orchestras, including the Orange County Junior Orchestra, the La Primavera Orchestra and the Disney Young Musicians.

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