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Young Piano Sensation Harmony Zhu on the Joys of Classical Music and Performing

Music & Podcasts

September 28, 2023

There are few people who can emanate positive energy quite like Harmony Zhu. Acclaimed as “a deeply musical soul and nimble technician [with] probing sensitivity” (Chicago Tribune) and a “sparkling, happy presence” (Times Union), the 17-year-old pianist has spent over a decade sharing the joys of classical music with audiences. And, during our recent conversation, her cheerful aura and infectious smile are just as radiant.

Hailing from a non-musical family in Toronto, Canada, Harmony embarked on her musical journey at the age of three by tinkering on an upright piano that her grandmother, a retired professor of literature, had just acquired as a retirement hobby. By the age of four, she was already learning the incredibly complex Chopin Nocturne in E-flat major and, by the age of seven, she had already graced the stage of Carnegie Hall twice.

Since then, she has continued to hone her extraordinary talent and has subsequently performed internationally on some of the world's most iconic stages alongside a collection of esteemed orchestras. Most recently, she won the coveted Gilmore Young Artists Award, an illustrious accolade recognizing exceptionally gifted pianists.

As a chess prodigy, she made headlines when she won the North American Chess Championships in her age category, earning her the esteemed title of Woman Candidate Master at the tender age of seven. Harmony then created further sensation later that year when she clinched victory in the World Youth Chess Championships for her age group.

In this exclusive interview with The Teen Magazine, I had the opportunity to chat with Harmony about the mindsets that have led to her success and how she seeks inspiration from the world around her.

Photo Courtesy of Harmony Zhu

From Child Prodigy to Teenage Virtuoso

“It was never part of my parents’ plan or their idea for me to do music professionally or anything like that. My name, Harmony, is an utter coincidence - my parents were going for the peaceful, tranquil, and harmonious meaning rather than the musical one! It was just completely me loving it and me just always pushing them to get me lessons and so forth,” says Harmony of her beginnings with the instrument.

She tells me that she did attend lessons in a local mall for a short period of time, where a voice student taught her the basics of reading music. Being a fast learner, she would return to her lesson the next week with an entire book of pieces learned when her teacher only assigned one piece. Therefore, her parents, regarding the piano as a mere leisure activity akin to skating or swimming, discontinued her lessons, since she had already acquired the basics needed to enjoyably tinker around on her own. This granted her the “total freedom” to explore whatever her heart desired, including the Chopin Nocturne in E-flat Op. 9 No. 2 at the mere age of four.

“Looking back, it’s absolutely hilarious that I learned it when I was four!” she laughs,“But it was just a really beautiful piece that I was so attracted to, and I didn’t have a teacher to discipline me and tell me to stay away from it. So I just played whatever my heart desired for a year or two before my parents finally gave in and found me an actual piano teacher.”

Photo Courtesy of Harmony Zhu

At the age of 8, Harmony furthered her musical education by enrolling at Juilliard – one of the world’s most prestigious performing arts schools. When asked if she felt intimidated by being the youngest one in the room at the time, she only recalls having feelings of excitement and gratitude: “I didn’t feel intimidated. Everyone was very supportive and welcoming, and I was always really curious. People have called me a sponge sometimes because I tend to absorb whatever is around me. I love meeting new people, so it was really exciting and I was happy to be part of it.”

“As an 8-year-old, being able to walk into the hallways and hear music from all kinds of directions because everyone’s practicing there or taking classes there was a very magical thing,” Harmony explains, “Juilliard is just a very enriching place - it’s a very supportive and tight-knit community.”

The following nine years have seen her career go from strength to strength, winning awards and critical acclaim, as well as becoming a recurring fixture at festivals and concerts worldwide (more on that later).

But, no matter how successful she has become, piano truly remains an enjoyable pastime for the teenage virtuoso – most of all when she is sat at her piano improvising new compositions.“A lot of the time when I sit down at the piano I’ll have something in my head. Music of my own just plays automatically in my head from nowhere all the time - like a 24/7 radio of sorts!” Being an accomplished composer, she frequently finds that her improvisations serve as the creative spark for her compositions. In these spontaneous musical moments, she discovers melodies, harmonies, and ideas that often become the foundation for her original works, allowing her to craft intricate and emotionally resonant compositions from the raw material of her improvisations.

Naturally Inspired

All great artists have a source of inspiration, and Harmony tells me that hers stems from art and nature. “Beyond music, I find the greatest joy in visual art,” she says. “Visual art is a universal language, just like music. It weaves these connections between us that defy the confines of mere words. I can’t really explain why, but I am just naturally drawn to paintings and sculptures.

When I stand in front of one, time stops. It’s like I step into a transformative portal and get to enter into the mind of the artist for a short while. I always explore as many art museums as I can, and spend most of my free time studying art and art history with whatever I can get my hands on! My laptop constantly shuts down in protest of my opening endless tabs which lead to more endless tabs about all kinds of art.”

When we get on to the topic of nature, she is just as enthusiastic. As an avid birdwatcher and animal lover - something which has been aided by the fact that she currently lives in New Jersey, aka the Garden State - Harmony is filled with wonder and joy as she discusses her most recent wildlife sightings.

Is there anywhere in particular that she likes to go to enjoy the natural world? “My backyard!” she exclaims. “There was a pair of house finches nesting on my front porch a week ago. And also I have some rocks in my backyard and there’s this chipmunk who, every day at noon, will go there and literally stretch out like this,” she says as she extends her torso to mimic the rodent's posture, “and she literally does yoga there for an hour!”

Photo Courtesy of Harmony Zhu

“I feel lucky to have so much nature around me as little things like this are sources of daily inspiration. Without going anywhere, I can just look out my windows as I’m practicing, doing homework, or preparing for my many exams, and get thoroughly distracted from whatever I’m doing!”

With regard to musical influences, Harmony doesn't hesitate to cite Frédéric Chopin as her go-to composer. “His music has always been extremely dear to me. It is so profound and noble, but it also really tears at your heart and resonates with the human experience on a deeply personal level.”However, she also acknowledges that her sources of inspiration vary depending on what she is working on at the time: “Bach, Brahms, Schumann, and Scriabin are some of the other composers who speak to me on a deep level.”

In The Limelight

“I always cherish playing with orchestras as there's a unique energy onstage when you're playing music you love alongside fellow musicians who share the same deep passion for it. There is this sizzling energy from everybody; it’s electrifying.”

The rising star's love for sharing the stage with orchestras is also reflected by her selection of her all-time favorite performances, which includes her concerts with the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, and a very short notice jump-in with the Illinois Philharmonic.

Photo by: Andrew Schwartz

With the Philadelphia Orchestra, she performed at age 11 at The Kimmel Center under the baton of Maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin. It was the Opening Night Gala Concert for its 118th season - a feat that made her the youngest opening season performer anywhere. “It was not my first time playing with an orchestra, but from the very first note I was in awe of the special sound they had and how their rich, singing sound resonated throughout the hall. Making music with Maestro Nézet-Séguin and the incredible musicians was an exhilarating and unforgettable experience. They were all so warm and kind,” she recollects.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert took place at the Ravinia Festival, in a large outdoor venue tucked within 36 acres of manicured woods and meadow that can accommodate up to 10,000 audience members. Harmony worked with Maestro Marin Alsop, who, having heard her in concert at Ravinia the year prior, was highly impressed and invited her back to collaborate with herself and the CSO. With the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra - aged 12 - she wowed audiences with a remarkable performance of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No.2 Op.19, this time conducted by Maestro Arie Vardi.

And speaking of her jump-in with the Illinois Philharmonic, she recalls, “I usually never pick up any calls from unknown numbers, so I completely ignored what seemed like three spam calls in the middle of my calculus class that day, until I received a text from the same number who turned out to be Maestro Stilian Kirov, the Music Director of the IPO, asking if I could step in with Prokofiev’s 3rd Concerto at this very short notice for the incredible late pianist Alexander Toradze. Of course I wanted to help with all my heart, but I hadn’t practiced for three weeks already at that point as I was cramming for exams.

Once calculus was over, I rushed to my school’s piano to see if my fingers still had any life in them and if Prokofiev 3rd was still in my head – to my surprise, I could still play through the whole thing by memory! So I dropped my exam study guides and packed my bags!” Drawing from one of the most formidable works in her piano repertoire, Harmony's performance resulted in rave reviews.

Photo by: Andrew Schwartz

So, given that she has performed on some of the biggest stages with some of the most significant figures in modern classical music, I had wondered if she had any pre-show rituals that helped to ease any potential nerves. In short, the answer is no, and her typical backstage routine includes only the basics – like the consummate professional that she is. “I just warm-up!” she replied matter-of-factly, “I get into my gown, I get into my shoes, I warm-up a bit, they tell me five minutes, I go wait in the wings, I get cold because there’s always blasting AC, and I finally go up onto the stage.”

The Ellen DeGeneres Show

Alongside her musical accomplishments, you may recognize Harmony from her appearances on The Ellen DeGeneres Show when she was younger.

Her three appearances - which took place when she was aged 8, 9, and 10 - endeared her to both viewers and DeGeneres alike.

Looking back on it now, she says that she still has “vivid memories” of her “really special” experiences on the show. “Ellen was such a warm and kind person, and the whole staff were super supportive. I am really grateful for The Ellen Show as I always cherish opportunities to share classical music with an audience that might not have had many encounters with it. Oftentimes, people may not develop a taste for classical music because they haven't had many chances to explore and appreciate it.”

“When I appeared on the show at age 10, it was coincidentally my birthday,” she goes on to recall. “I didn’t even tell them about it, but they somehow found out, and after the show they surprised me by baking me the most beautiful pink ice cream birthday cake I’d ever seen adorned with real orchids throughout - this took place off-camera and the audience did not know about it, so it was a genuinely kind and thoughtful gesture by the staff.”

Leading a Double Life

On top of all her many endeavors, Harmony is also a straight-A high student at a prestigious school in NYC, renowned for its rigorous academics and heavy workload. “My friends at school always tell me ‘you live a double life!’ and ask me how I can handle all this when they already can’t sleep,” she laughs. “People often wonder why I'm not following the homeschooling path, as many young pianists do. The reality is that despite being extremely demanding and intense, going to school is a whole lot of fun for me. The diverse range of knowledge I get to soak up on a daily basis is truly fascinating, and what I learn from my classes inspires me as a well-rounded individual rather than just a ‘practice-room pianist’. And being part of such a kind community means a lot to me. My teachers and friends are always so supportive and I’m beyond grateful for that.”

Photo Courtesy of Harmony Zhu

Lifelong Passion

You may think that mastering a craft like piano is all about strict practice schedules and relentless training. Practice does supposedly make perfect, after all. But for Harmony, improving your piano skills is all about one thing: passion.

“It’s just so important to have a passion for it if you’re going to do it,” she says, “I’ve seen so many of my peers and so many children whose parents force them into playing an instrument because they believe it’s good for developing discipline or beneficial for brain development. But if the kids are not actually having a positive experience themselves, they’re not going to enjoy the process - and that’s kind of what it’s all about.”

“My parents never pushed me into anything - they just let me follow my heart and do whatever I wanted to do. And the reason I do piano is 100% because I love to do it.”

Photo Courtesy of Harmony Zhu

As for the future, Harmony makes it clear that she doesn't have any specific ambitions - she simply wishes to continue sharing the joys of music with others. “I just hope to continue sharing my music around the world and meeting new friends,” she explains, “And to also keep performing not only in halls but also in areas where people might not have access to classical music or to instruments.”

“Being able to share the magic of music, bring joy to people's lives, and make the world around me a more harmonious and compassionate place is what inspires me to make music every day!”

Keep Up With Harmony

To catch Harmony live, you can get tickets to her upcoming concert at Carnegie Hall on October 17 here.

To stay up to date with all the latest, be sure to follow @harmonypianist on Instagram. You can also subscribe to her YouTube channel.

Sam Burton
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Sam Burton is the Managing Editor of Interviews at The Teen Magazine.