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Concord girl set to perform at Carnegie Hall

Last modified: 1/18/2014 1:13:59 AM
She was asked to play one of her original compositions, to show off her musical skills. She sat in front of one of two pianos in the parlor of her single-floor home. The mid-morning sunlight filtered through the window and snuck through the curtains.

She tapped the keys slowly and gently. And then a little faster and harder. Soon a sweet melody imbued the room – her melody, the one she devised on her own. She smiled when she was done.

“It’s called ‘Shimmer,’ ” Emma Servadio said.

It’s a three-minute piece that she completed this past summer. It’s the song that she’ll be performing tomorrow when she plays in the Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall in New York City as part of the Crescendo International Music Competition.

Emma is 9, a fourth-grader at Christa McAuliffe School. She is a composer who’s never had a composition lesson, someone who can sit in front of a piano and just create music.

Her mother, Ching-Yao Chen, never envisioned that her daughter would follow this sort of path. But she noticed something was different in Emma from an early age, since she was about 2 months old and started moving her hands to music that was played for her, as if ready to conduct it. She signed her up for violin lessons when she was 4½, and piano lessons when she was 5.

And then it started happening.

Emma first came up with two short, original pieces on violin. Then she started crafting her own music on the piano. She was 6.

“It just comes to her,” said Chen, who learned piano as a child but didn’t play again until about a decade ago. “For her, it’s the way it is.”

She’s since composed three piano pieces and is working on a couple more. Emma doesn’t craft original music for the violin anymore, but still takes weekly lessons on it – in addition to her weekly piano lessons. She says she likes both instruments equally.

Emma’s music instructors say she has a gift.

“Right away, you could tell Emma was special,” said Bozena O’Brien, who taught her violin at the Concord Community Music School. Emma now takes violin lessons at the New England Conservatory, but still goes to the music school for piano instruction.

“There’s a particular intensity she brings to her music,” added Kathryn Southworth, who taught her piano at the Community Music School for about three years.

The other day, as she sat next to the Kawai and Steinway pianos that take up most of the space in her living room, Emma struggled to put into words how she’s able to come up with that music.

“I don’t really think about it,” she said. “It just comes to me.”

She then talked about some of the other things that she’s interested in. She loves to read, is enthralled by ballet, likes pingpong.

Emma said she wants to be a professional musician when she grows up, but if she isn’t able to do that, she’d like to be a person who draws lottery numbers on television.

The only way Emma is able to keep track of her compositions for now is by digitally recording them. She then has someone else transcribe them.

She hasn’t taken formal composition lessons because her mother thinks that if she does at this age, it might stifle her creativity. Right now, she wants Emma to play however she feels like playing.

“The way she plays is very free,” Chen said.

Chen also said that she and her husband, Ilan Servadio, feel it’s important that they send Emma to a regular school, not to a conservatory or an institution that specializes in music. That way, she’ll be exposed to different potential fields of study.

“It’s not like we want to frame her to be a musician,” she said. “It’s up to her.”

Chen is from Taiwan, her husband from Israel. They met in New York and came here about six years ago so that he could go to Franklin Pierce Law School. They like Concord, she said, because it’s peaceful.

The competition that Emma will be participating in tomorrow features young pianists from around the world. She had to pass an audition to make it there. She’s likely the only one who will be playing an original composition. The audience size will be relatively small.

Emma’s gotten a bit of practice at performing her piece in front of a crowd, though. Last week, she played “Shimmer” at the fourth-grade winter concert at Christa McAuliffe School. It was a last-minute addition to the show – it wasn’t even included on the program. Her mother had asked the fourth-grade music teacher if she could play it, so that Emma could get more experience.

The teacher, Eileen Guzman, struggled to put into words what the performance was like. It was the first time she’d seen Emma play piano, since that’s not part of the musical curriculum for fourth-graders at the school.

“When she performs, she’s so very mature,” Guzman said. “It’s a maturity that comes with age, but she’s not even old. I don’t know how to explain it.”

(William Perkins can be reached at wperkins@cmonitor.com.)

(An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect title for the school that Emma now takes violin lessons at.)


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