CORVALLIS - Amy Wu may not picture herself playing the piano before a packed house at Carnegie Hall, but that's okay. A lot of other people can. At 16, Wu, a junior at Crescent Valley High School in Corvallis, has all of the tools to become a renowned concert pianist - drive, passion, smarts, a competitive spirit, supportive parents, a mentor who knows how to help her succeed and, of course, talent.
Oh, that talent.
"Amy Wu has tremendous potential to become a first-rate concert pianist - a level few achieve," said Rachelle McCabe, the director of piano studies at Oregon State University, who has worked with Wu for the last five years. "She was not a child prodigy. She has arrived at where she is today by hard work and her incredible drive."
The daughter of Carl and Jian Wu, Amy won the Oregon division of the Music Teachers National Association piano contest this year, qualifying for the regional competition, which she also won. At nationals, she placed third behind two 18-year-old boys, whose powerful style won points with the judges. But Wu turned heads with her style, expression and mastery of the complex pieces she chose, which included works of Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, Chopin and Ravel.
"The third movement of Rachmaninoff's 2nd Piano Concerto is as tough as the repertoire gets," McCabe said, "and Amy played it brilliantly."
Wu's potential is so high that McCabe knows she is unlikely to see her practicing on the OSU campus much longer. This summer, she has been accepted for study in the Music Academy of the West, which only accepts 12 piano students for its prestigious program. Wu is getting a full scholarship.
Next up, after high school, could be a specialized school like Juilliard, where McCabe studied.
"The East Coast is nice," Wu admits. "That is where all of the competition is. I really enjoy the competition; it keeps me motivated to practice and improve. Dr. McCabe is a wonderful teacher; I owe everything to her and my parents."
Born in Beijing, China, Wu got her first exposure to music at the age of four when her grandparents gave her a portable keyboard. At the age of five-and-a-half, the family moved to Corvallis, where her father works as an engineer at Hewlett Packard. During first grade, she started piano lessons with Corvallis teacher Joan Gathercoal, though it wasn't exactly love at first sight for Wu and the piano.
"My parents made me practice and I didn't really like it," she said, laughing. "Eventually, I started doing a few recitals and got into the competition when I was 10 or 11. But I still didn't like to practice that much. I would sit around the house and read books, then when I heard my parents come home, I'd jump up and run to the piano and start playing.
"But then I started learning to play more complex pieces - Rachmaninoff, Chopin, and others - and suddenly the piano became really enjoyable. I started practicing more and more, and really looking forward to the competition."
Wu spends three or four hours on the piano each day, and bumps that up to five or six hours when preparing for serious competition. It hasn't hurt her school work much - she maintains a 4.0 grade point average and is taking the Advanced Placement calculus, music theory and U.S. history exams in May.
As a freshman, she went out for tennis and made varsity. But she simply didn't have enough hours in the day to continue in athletics as well as music. "For the past two weeks, I haven't been getting much sleep because of practice and school work," she said. "But that's fine with me. I don't like to waste time."
Wu is the musical equivalent to basketball's "gym rat," someone who loves to practice and work on individual skills. Yet her music is anything but workmanlike, McCabe says. "Amy is very expressive artistically and with her individuality, she has something to 'say' with her music," McCabe said. "It's hard to articulate, but you can recognize it when you see it. People want to watch and hear her play. It's not just because of her technique, which is amazing for her age, but because she is expressive, artistic and communicates in her performance. That is a rare attribute."
Marlan Carlson, who chairs the Department of Music at OSU, has watched Wu grow under the tutelage of McCabe and says this kind of mentorship is one of the hidden stories that rarely are told about universities like Oregon State.
"To be honest, OSU is not the place for Amy Wu," he said. "The minute she graduates from high school, she should be at Juilliard, the Moscow Conservatory, or the Paris Conservatory. It is our obligation - and pleasure - to help nurture these 'Wimbledon stars of the future' and help them prepare for a genuinely professional learning environment. Luckily for Amy, she has a mentor in Rachelle McCabe who has been in the best places and who knows what the top of the profession looks like."
In the interim, OSU has become extended musical family for Wu. In addition to working with McCabe for several hours each week, she performed with the OSU-Corvallis Symphony last October, and will again this fall. And she has appeared in several other musical productions on campus. Amy Wu's talent is growing by leaps and bounds. And the tougher the competition, the better, she says, which is yet another reason why her OSU mentors think her potential is unlimited.
"Last year, I went to the Aspen Music Festival and I was just - average," Wu said, pausing on the word as if it were distasteful. "The other musicians put me in my place. When I came back home, I got to work. I don't want that to happen again.
"But as much as I love competition, I love making music more," she added. "Every day when I sit at the piano and practice, I feel I'm enclosed in a separate world."