When Riverside resident Stephanie Chang sits at the piano, the fingers of her small hands glide effortlessly over the keys -- hand over hand and up and down the keyboard they move. Her feet just reach pedals, which have been specially raised on her family's Yamaha piano to accommodate the length of the six-year-old, first-grader's legs.
The young virtuoso, who just entered first grade at North Mianus School, recently was invited to perform in three concerts in Connecticut and New York City before the Connecticut Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra.
"She loves to be on stage, says her mother, Linda Chang. "She's a very shy person, but when it comes to the piano, she's a different person."
Stephanie has been learning to play the piano since she was four. According to her mom, she first showed her musical aptitude when she was just three years old. "She was correcting her big brother's piano playing!" says Linda. "She was telling him, `That's the wrong note!'"
(Turns out that her brother James, a seventh grader at Eastern Middle School, is a star musician himself, a saxophone player, and one of the youngest players in the school's jazz band.)
What was key with Stephanie was finding just the right teacher, her mom says. Svitlana Fiorito of Stamford turned out to be the right fit. She not only was passionate about music, Chang says, "She has Stephanie make up fun stories to go with the music."
"Stephanie is a quiet girl, but very strong inside," says her instructor. "She doesn't speak much in lessons." With her years of experience in teaching young children, Fiorito found the way to reach Stephanie -- by engaging her in story-telling. "I needed to reach her soul," says the instructor.
To learn the three-movement piano concerto by composer Nicolai Silvansky, Fiorito said that she told Stephanie "to go home and tell a story while the music is moving, then write the story down on paper."
"She made a wonderful story for the concerto. It's about a bunny rabbit that wanted to be in the woods and gets lost. The mother goes to look for him and finds him. So, each part of the music she was telling herself the story, and at the concert she played the music through in 7 to 8 minutes."
Fiorito is now teaching Stephanie Chopin's Polonaise. "It's very loving, caring, feeling music because the music is all about love," she says. "This is the problem with small children who are getting advanced in technique -- we are forced to give them pieces that are above their emotional level. I have to communicate with her in a way that she understands," the instructor adds.
Chang says of Fiorito, "Her teaching has led my daughter into the world of classical music, weaving Bach and Mozart into her dreams. We are very lucky to find a teacher like her for Stephanie."
But there are physical challenges for such a little girl playing such big music. There's the footstool to support her feet to reach the raised pedals. She does special exercises to stretch her hands so she can play Chopin and other master composers. And finger exercises are part of Stephanie's regimen. "There are a lot of injuries with piano players," says her mother, "if they don't use the proper position." A bit of improvising goes into playing certain chords, she adds. "Her hand isn't large enough to connect the keys." A less important note will be taken out, for example, or, "Stephanie will pick up her hand and then play the given key."
When she performed the Bach Prelude earlier this year at the Connecticut State Music Teachers Association Competition, she was the winner in the 6- to 9-year-old age group.
Stephanie puts Johann Sebastian Bach at the top of her list of favorite composers, she says, "Because his music is deep and tricky, requiring a lot of thinking. There are multiple voices, with left hand and right hand playing separate melodies as if they were talking to each other!"
Bach's sense of humor appeals to her. "He used to say it's easy to play any musical instrument -- all you have to do is touch the right key at the right time, and the instrument will play itself. That's what I am trying to do, too!" the young pianist says.
Frederic Chopin is her second favorite and she listens to his Nocturnes every night before she goes to sleep. "His music is so gentle," she says. "It calms me, it makes me feel very cozy."
Stephanie says her third favorite composer is Muzio Clementi. "I played many of Clementi's Sonatinas; they are so fun, and I can make up a lot of fun stories to go with his music." When a person is sad, she said, "Clementi's music can make him happy!"
Fiorito says, "Stephanie's next dream is to play at Carnegie Hall."
And the instructor doesn't doubt it one bit. "That," the teacher says, "is going to happen."