Alex Chien isn't your average sixth-grader.
He's only 11 years old, but the Saratoga resident already has performed piano pieces in Europe and at Carnegie Hall in New York City, and he's won several piano competitions.
Stanislaus County will get to experience Alex's talent Saturday at California State University, Stanislaus, in Turlock, where he will showcase his piano abilities during a solo concert.
Alex's father, Chester Chien, said Alex has grown up with the piano. His mother is a piano teacher, so even as a baby, he was surrounded with piano music.
"What was special about him even at age 1 or 2 was that he could tell whether Mom or a student was playing," Chien said. "Often, he would stop playing in the other room and run to the piano when he heard Mom's playing."
Alex won his first piano competition when he was 4. His parents noticed he had perfect pitch and rhythm and was an expert at learning new music.
At 5, Alex's playing caught the attention of a music TV program producer in San Jose, who invited Alex to be a guest on his show, "Maestro Darrell's Music Workshop." This event kicked off Alex's piano career.
Stephen Thomas, professor of music and coordinator of keyboard studies at CSU Stanislaus, met Alex when he heard him play piano at last year's Sylvia M. Ghiglieri Piano Competition, which Thomas founded at CSU Stanislaus for pre-college pianists.
Alex blew everyone away when he played Hungarian Rhapsody No. 10 by Franz Liszt and won first prize in the junior division. "Many very accomplished pianists who are adults and have studied in famous conservatories could not play the Liszt piece because it is so difficult," Thomas said. "He plays it like it's a piece of cake."
As a result of his first-place prize, Alex received a scholarship to attend the Junior Piano Session of Summer Music at CSU Stanislaus in June, where he got to work closely with Thomas.
"Working with Alex at the camp was a great experience for me since I was able to really get to know his playing and potential," Thomas said. "It is fun to see this level of accomplishment up close and be able to have some small part in nurturing it."
Alex's father has recognized his son's high level of talent and supports him to continue growing in his piano abilities.
"Being a professional concert pianist is one of the most rewarding professions, and we certainly want him to think seriously about this," Chien said. "Of course, there is still lots of room for him to grow, and to decide what to do, but we hope the piano will always be a big part of his life."
Thomas believes Alex is cut out for a career in the world of piano performance.
"Alex is the most talented young pianist I have ever heard," he said. "The musical detail and maturity he brings to his playing is as artistic as any top professional adult pianist I have ever heard. It's fun to see this little kid up at the piano and hear a completely grown-up sound. It's amazing!"
Alex's parents are glad they immersed him in the arts at such a young age.
"The benefit of having kids exposed to art is evident," Chester Chien said. "From our own experience of teaching music, those kids who have spent time on music are better in their development. They are better students at school and better members of their communities."
Thomas agrees it is vital for students to be involved with the arts as soon as possible. "Learning to play a musical instrument leads to deep changes in heart and soul as you seek to understand and express beauty with sensitivity," he said. "You literally become a different person by learning to play music."
Alex is using his piano talents to inspire other kids and adults to put in the effort and dedication required in order to achieve success. Alex participates in many outreach programs and spends time performing at various schools, particularly those in low-income neighborhoods.
"He not only shares his music with them, but he also inspires them to live up to their potentials," his father said.
Thomas believes Alex is a role model "because of the consistent effort he has put in to develop his gift into the remarkable thing it is today."
Thomas believes adults and young people alike will enjoy the piano talents of Alex.
"To me, his example is inspiring," Thomas said. "We can all learn something from seeing a gifted person of any age demonstrate the results of his passionate development of his abilities. Everyone should come to this concert to be inspired!"
Alex is excited to share his gift with Stanislaus County this month, but does admit to getting nervous sometimes before a performance.
"It is natural to get some stage fright," Alex said. "Sometimes it will even help me to play better."
Alex's advice to young people trying to reach their dreams: "Hard work will pay off. Don't give up!"