Photo Credit: Island Photography
Some people take their entire lives to find their true passion. Then there are those who seem placed on this planet knowing exactly what they were meant to do. Enter Nadia Azzi, whom at the tender age of 14 has accomplished so much in very little time with her talents on the piano. She debuted at age 11 in Carnegie Hall and she took first place in the New Music National Young Artist Competition in 2011 where she won both Overall and Art New Music awards. She has been the recipient of many awards both here and abroad for her talent as a classical pianist, and was recently a featured artist on NPR’s Popular Radio show From The Top. As is true with most young talents, Nadia is an extremely bright girl who is also successful academically. Nadia is currently living in New York City, studying at the prestigious Professional Performing Arts School and in the pre-college division of Juilliard. She recently took some time to answer a few questions about what her life is like as a young musician. After reading the interview be sure not to miss her attached video performances.
TTN: Nadia, why don’t you start out by telling us what a typical day is like for you?
NADIA: I leave my apartment at 8:25 am to arrive at the Professional Performing Arts School (PPAS) located in Times Square by 8:59 am, except Tuesdays when I have to arrive by 8:15 am for my chemistry lab work. The school bus picks me and other Juilliard students up at 1:18 pm and takes us to The Juilliard School in Lincoln Center by 1:35 pm. I normally have lunch with my friends at Juilliard around the area until 2:15 pm. I spend sometimes hours just to find a practice room, but spend a few minutes only on some days. I then practice the piano until 8:30 pm or so depending on the amount of homework I have for the day. If there is not much homework, I can stay practicing at Juilliard until 11:00 pm. My Juilliard classes start at 10:00 am and end at 6:00 pm on Saturdays. I take chorus, private lessons, chamber music rehearsals, ear training, music theory, studio class during these hours. I also perform at Juilliard either during these hours on Saturdays or after 6:00 pm.
TTN: I’ve read that you practice some 15 hours and more per week, how do you fit that into your schedule?
NADIA: I now normally practice 4-5 hours a day for piano, maybe 25-30 hours a week. I practice longer during the days leading to a performance or competition. Because I attend a joint program between Juilliard and Professional Performing Arts School, at least 2 periods worth of practice hours are built into my daily curriculum. All students at PPAS spend their afternoon for their majors. That’s why all Juilliard students get transported to practice rooms in the afternoon. This arrangement makes it easier for me to spend more time to practice. I am however new to this kind of special treatment. I always attended a traditional school for my academic needs and took music privately. There were days I couldn’t touch the piano at all because there were so much homework to do. I got transferred to this joint program at the end of October of 2012.
TTN: You’ve been called a prodigy, what do you think about that?
NADIA: I personally don’t see myself as a prodigy. My parents always stress that talent alone is not a substitute for hard work. They praised me for my ability to focus and practice for an extended period of time or my ability to enjoy both positive and negative results generated from competitions or performances. Since I started the Juilliard pre-college division, I am blessed to be around so many other students who have different types of amazing abilities. At PPAS, I share my daily school life with gifted dancers, actors, and singers. My definition of being talented is one’s ability to work hard on the field that they are passionate about. I am told that some people spend a lifetime trying to discover and define their real passion, from that perspective I feel blessed and lucky to have found my real passion at a very early age.
TTN: Tell us something about your most memorable musical performance or event.
It’s difficult to pick one event. My very first memorable musical performance was when I performed at the Carnegie Hall when I was 11. I vividly remember the great acoustics of the hall. The sounds travel so beautifully in the hall that I didn’t have to work hard on the piano. Having come from FL to NYC to perform at one of the most prestigious concert halls in the world for the first time, my parents were worried that I would get nervous. I didn’t at all. I felt so alive instead. I also felt performing is something I would like to do for the rest of my life, and if that’s not possible, I somehow felt music will always with me one way or another. Another event I can’t permanently forget is my exclusive appearance on WFMT98.7 Chicago’s International Radio Program. It was an hour-long and totally a live show. There wasn’t a live audience in the radio studio where I had to perform. I was for the very first time nervous. I was worried about making a mistake that could be heard through radio broadcast. It was also horrifying not to have a live audience! I knew I had to be as perfect as possible because I was only given one chance to do it. I don’t remember how I did it, but the show was successful. This event was very memorable because this opportunity gave me an experience to excel in my own personal expectation. The other very important performance was my debut in the Newport Music Festival last summer at age 13. I was very honored to be invited at such a young age to be included in the Festival’s artist roster with well-established professionals in classical music.
TTN: With your busy schedule, how are you handling school?
NADIA: As explained above, I am settled in this joint program, and excited to excel both in academics and music. Even if PPAS gives us freedom to work around our musical performances or competition needs, it gives us opportunities in excelling academically as well. PPAS offers AP courses in school, and also accepts advanced online and college courses. I plan to take advanced language courses and pre-calculus/Calculus courses online starting next year. For Juilliard courses, I would like to add composition and improvisation courses starting next school year. The great thing about Juilliard pre-college courses is that you can pick and choose many various classes that fit your interests. I wish there were more than 24 hours a day, so I could add more classes!
TTN: Do you play any other instruments?
NADIA: I also play the violin. I however practice the violin only for an hour every other day. I didn’t start it until age 10, which is kind of late for a competitive instrument. My best friends played the violin and I wanted to play it as well. Surprisingly, it came to me much easier than the piano during the initial stage of learning the instrument, maybe because I already had years of music theory, ear training, and reading more difficult music on the piano repertoire. For me, violin helps my piano playing. Piano is a percussion instrument, and I get sometimes frustrated that I can’t grow the sound after playing a note on a key. Because I do that on the violin, I try to connect notes on the piano in a way that it sounded as if it was connected and with a crescendo. This effort always helps me on lyrical pieces and not to make it sound choppy. I plan to audition for a chamber group in NY this year on violin as well, so I can continue playing this 2nd instrument.
TTN: Do you have other musicians in your family?
NADIA: My father was never exposed to music growing up. My mother took piano lessons when she was young. She however didn’t stick to the piano when she got into high school. She became very passionate about playing the drums in a rock band. I was told she took her drum sticks to subways and buses during her commute to her high school every day in order to practice in her mind and during every breathing moment. When her band was about to tour nationally in Japan, her parents opposed it, being an only girl in the band, and forced her to quit.
TTN: How did you first become interested in playing the piano?
NADIA: To be honest I don’t remember how and when! Sometimes I feel like if I was born with that passion!
TTN: I’ve watched some of your very beautiful lengthy classical performances, how do you memorize that much music?
NADIA: I really don’t know for sure. Memorizing music has always come easy to me. I really never made an effort trying to remember. I believe I do have photographic memory ability. When I perform from memory, I play as if I have a music score in front of me. I remember each note’s location on the book exactly how they appear. When I play the memorized piece on a different edition, I get thrown off a little because some editions have notes in different locations on the pages. Then, the contents do not match with my photographically stored record. But, the more the advanced repertoire I play, the more difficult it has become to memorize. I then would have to analyze the composition more in detail. I think about the structures of the piece and how the keys are transposed. In December when I appeared on the NPR’s show From the Top, an alumni cellist gave me a tip on how to memorize quickly. He said to memorize music backwards. I have tried it, and it actually works!
TTN: What would you like to contribute to the music world?
NADIA: I would like to help bring back the lost interest in classical music to today’s mainstream audiences. I want my work to help the newer generations so they can understand and appreciate many different genres of music, without excluding the great work of classical composers that is often forgotten nowadays.
TTN: I understand you do community outreach programs; can you talk a bit about those opportunities?
NADIA: Yes, I always performed for churches, schools, and assisted living places locally in my home state of Florida since I was 5 or 6. I just LOVE to perform for the elders. I know I make them very happy when I perform for them. I heard some of these elders do not have their family visiting them all the time. Since many of these seniors on wheelchairs can’t go to other live performances at concert halls easily, I felt coming to their places to play for them made a huge difference in their lives. I also perform for charity concerts especially for the Japanese Tsunami victims. Additionally, when I was invited to perform with the Northwest Indiana Symphony last week, I was asked to give two Outreach Programs at local K-8 schools. The reactions I received from these young students were something I will treasure forever. At such a young age, I know they can do anything they want and they can become anything they wish to be, so sharing my music passion with these students gave me a great feeling of accomplishment. I did not go there to only promote music, but I asked them to believe in themselves and pursue their own passion. If you feel something that is in your heart; I urged them to just go for it.
TTN: What is it like living in NYC and studying at the pre-college division of Juilliard?
NADIA: Everything is in walking distance in NYC, so it gives me great freedom and independence. Everything is close, and it’s perfect for students like me who want to advance in music. I however love my home, my friends in Florida, and the life I had in Florida. I love Florida’s weather and cleanliness. NYC is very crowded and some streets are smelly. But having attended the pre-college division of Juilliard gave me an assurance that this is the place I need to be at least for now. I am surrounded by many students who have the same goal and passion as me, and we can share so many things together. I love my chamber music partners who are totally committed for weekly rehearsals and performances. Anything I want to study is offered at Juilliard. I LOVE it!
TTN: You were recently a featured artist on NPR’s From the Top, what was that experience like?
NADIA: It was such an amazing experience to be featured on this popular show! Mr. O’Riley is a wonderful host as well as a great musician. But, the show itself is completely well-run. The staff is very experienced and helpful. The best part of this show however is the Art Leadership program. They educate us to be a leader and promote the performing arts, which helped me to be a great Outreach Program presenter.
TTN: What kinds of things do you do with your friends when you are not focusing on your music?
NADIA: At Juilliard, a bunch of us gather in a practice room and watch Asian dramas on a laptop or computer. Or, some of us have fun sight-reading together, improvising, etc. We also go out to restaurants together. There are so many great restaurants to eat in NYC! All of us live in either small apartments, or different parts of NY, so we don’t go to anyone’s house – very different from how it is in Florida.
TTN: Do your friends understand that you need to devote as much time as you do to your music? Are the supportive, or are they musicians as well?
NADIA: Many of my friends at PPAS/Juilliard devote lots of time or pretty much their whole life for music. Some practice much longer than I do. Of course, everyone understands this because the piano is a very competitive instrument. I actually feel like I need to spend more time to practice from seeing how much time my friends devote to their own practicing. I am really grateful for that. But before being accepted at Juilliard, many of my old friends didn’t understand why I had to spend so much time home practicing. I however was very blessed with many great friends who went to school with me at the Center for the Gifted Studies in Dunedin Highland Middle School. Many of my friends had other passions, so most of them never criticized me on my needs of practicing for a long time. I never hang out with my friends unless certain hours of practicing are done, so all of them start scheduling get-togethers with me later in the afternoon or in the evening, knowing I will be done with my practice.
TTN: What are your hobbies outside of music?
NADIA: I don’t know if you call it a hobby, but I like to spend time social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter so I can catch up with my friends that aren’t in NYC. I am very interested in learning more about web-designing. I enjoy swimming and want to start hip-hop dancing. I also enjoy photography.
TTN: Is there anything you would like to impart to young musicians who are just starting out?
NADIA: I strongly recommend them to enjoy the process of learning. Don’t look for the results all the time. Please compare how you were doing in the past with how you are doing now, not how others were and are doing, and remember that the only person you are competing with is yourself. Music is very subjective, so please don’t look for an approval. While a proper instruction is crucial especially at the early learning stages, it’s more important to have something of your own. It is always a lot easier to be yourself than trying to be like someone you are not sure who they are!
Watch Nadia perform Schumann Sonata No.2 in G Minor
Click to view Nadia Azzi’s Website