THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS
CARROLLTON - Nine-year-old Albert Wong isn't blessed with the long, elegant fingers of a classical pianist. His tiny hands look as if they would be more proficient at constructing mud forts than tackling Beethoven or Bach.
Yet this child, with his buzz cut and untucked T-shirt, has amazing command of the keys with strong, assured strokes that han- dle the complicated fingering of Mozart's Twelve Variations K. 500 and Chopin's Fantaisie-Impromptu Opus 66, a standard piece for concert pianists' encore repertoire.
"I've seen university students who have studied the piano for years who aren't at his level, " says Joseph Banowetz, a professor of piano performance at the University of North Texas in Denton who is also Albert's coach. "In raw talent, I'd say he's in the top 1 percent."
Dr. Banowetz first met Albert when the boy was only 5. One of his former university students, Alton Chin, prodded him until he reluctantly agreed to an audition. Dr. Banowetz decided he'd test the boy, politely suggest a couple of piano instructors and move on. He had never taught a child and didn't intend to start now.
Besides, his hectic schedule as a professor, international performer, recording artist and competition judge did not allow for private students. That is, until Albert. Immediately, Dr. Banowetz saw that the boy knew his way around the keys, but that wasn't enough to alter his thinking.
The difference came when he tested Albert's pitch memory. First, Dr. Banowetz played individual notes. By sound only, Albert properly named each one. Dr. Banowetz played several clusters of notes. Albert named each one. Finally, he slammed his fist onto the piano, and Albert also named those notes. Instead of refusing Albert, he found himself accepting - temporarily - the coaching position he had no time for. That was four years ago.
"There are different degrees of perfect pitch, " says Dr. Banowetz, 64. "His is extremely acute."
At a recent solo recital, Albert walks onstage, bows and smiles an endearing yet awkwardly boyish grin. He's playing a benefit for the Texas Steinway Society's scholarship program.
To reach the pedals of this black grand piano, he has to sit on the edge of the bench. Using no sheet music, he lays his hands on the keys, pausing for just a moment, and tackles works from J.S. Bach, Mozart, Chopin and others.
After his Mozart piece, he hops up and walks off the stage. It's not the intermission, and within moments he returns, bows and begins again. This is one of his concert rituals. At least once, he'll stop to hug his mom, who always waits backstage for him. He likes having someone he knows close by, says his mother, Yen-Lih Chang.
When Albert plays, the little boy in him disappears. He feels the music's emotion. Closing his eyes, his shoulders rise and fall as the music intensifies and softens. At times his fast, aggressive fingering blurs his hands as they fly across the keys.
"The technique you have to practice, but the feeling comes naturally, " says Albert, who made his debut at age 5. His performance of Kuhlau's Sonatina Op. 55 No. 2 third movement earned him first place and a grand prize at the 10th annual North Texas Music Competition at Richland College. Since then he's performed recitals at UNT and with the Northeast Orchestra of Fort Worth and Fort Worth Chamber Music Society.
Neither of Albert's parents is musical, but when Albert was 3, Ms. Chang was overwhelmed trying to sate her son's appetite for knowledge. Learning an instrument, she hoped, would help keep him busy. He picked the piano because he liked its sound.
Albert studies with the professor at the university for a couple of hours each Thursday. He doesn't like to play a piece more than 10 times before a recital, and practice sessions typically last two hours, five days a week.
Technically, Dr. Banowetz says, Albert's not quite ready for the most advanced Beethoven sonatas or Rachmaninoff. "Piano is a building process, " says Dr. Banowetz. "You don't tackle the last Beethoven sonatas until you've had a sampling of the early and middle sonatas. . . .
"But I teach Albert phrasing, style, balance just like I do advanced university students. This isn't a case of monkey see, monkey do. He's extremely intelligent." Nothing needs to be dumbed down for him.
And that goes for all he tackles. Albert is not an idiot savant, excelling at one thing. Rather he's a child prodigy. By age 3, he started reading. Even then, he constantly asked questions about everything from what are infinity and negative numbers to how does the digestive tract work. By age 4, he taught himself to write by tracing letters with his finger. He has also taken up the violin and gave his first solo performance with the Dallas Chamber Orchestra at age 6.
These days, he's home-schooled by his mother, who's an engineer with two master's degrees. She quit work several years ago to raise Albert, and his father, Chi-Pong Wong, is a senior engineer at IBM.
Even above music, he loves reading. He'll read anything from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet to Mark Twain's short-story collection to a biography on Thomas Edison to the encyclopedia.
Popular music such as rock and country hold little to no appeal. "Rock is too loud, and the tunes are very simplistic, " says Albert. "They keep on repeating themselves."
Albert's big frustration with his own music is that his hands can't reach an octave, limiting his repertoire. As soon as his hands grow, he has his ears on Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody and Beethoven's Concerto No. 5.