Her eyelids lower into a soft gaze as her fingers gently dance across the keys. Each delicate note induces goosebumps. Her back straightens and contracts in tempo with the music, as if the tune is something she inhales and exhales.
As the melody works up to a crescendo, it's obvious Heather Hsun Chang doesn't just go through the motions at the piano. After 11 years of practice, classical music has become her deeply felt passion, and one she is determined to share with her community.
At 17 years old, the Gunn High School junior has already learned to juggle multiple roles -- award-winning musician, volunteer and student. But it's piano that means the most to her.
Born in Taipei, Taiwan, and a Palo Alto resident for five years, Chang acknowledged that her biggest life accomplishment was being chosen as one of 21 classical music finalists to participate in National YoungArts Week, an intensive workshop held in Miami in January of this year.
Chang also recently claimed an American Prize, one of several awards granted annually to top-notch performing artists by the Connecticut-based nonprofit, Hat City Music Theater, Inc. After submitting video recordings of her performances at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, including Beethoven's Sonata Op. 57 "Appassionata," Chang was awarded First Prize in the Solo Piano Division.
Her parents are not musicians, so Chang has learned about competitions like the American Prize through her acquaintances in the music world.
"My teachers didn't know about this," Chang explained. "My parents of course didn't know about this. I have friends I met in different competitions, and when I was reading their bios, I saw 'The American Prize' and I thought, 'Oh, what's this?' So I searched for it ... and applied by myself."
Her connections in competitive music world also led her to take on a role as regional director of the Juilliard School-based Back to BACH Project. Through the program, Chang introduces Bay Area children to a repertoire of classical music through volunteer performances at churches and schools -- with the hope of piquing their interest in playing musical instruments. The project hits a personal note for Chang, who first started playing the piano at the age of 5.
"The founder, Noah Lee, and I met at the Calgary Music Festival," she said of the program. "He plays the cello. I actually know his sister (cellist Sydney Lee) a little bit better ... she and I first met at Calgary and again at YoungArts in Miami. She's, like, amazing! Her mom called me and told me about this project they're doing this year and asked me if I was interested. It sounded really fun."
Sue Cho, administrator of the Back to Bach Project, commented by email on the strengths Chang brings to the work.
"As a musician, she is technically and musically at an immensely high level that is hard to find in any musician her age," Cho wrote. "Additionally, she is a focused, goal-driven young lady who approaches her tasks with thoughtfulness and great diligence. We are proud to have her in our project."
Although Chang exudes poise and grace while seated at the piano bench, she doesn't always feel confident.
"Three summers ago, when I went to my first music festival in Massachusetts, I met a lot of people who were a lot better than me, and I was like, 'Oh, I am so behind everyone!'" she admitted. "But I was pretty young," she added, laughing. "Two summers ago I went to Calgary for another music festival, and I realized I needed to be confident in myself. These people are technical, but I have my own good things as well; my musicality is pretty good, I think."
Beyond the competition world and the Back to BACH program, Chang performs in piano recitals held at assisted living homes throughout the Bay Area, including Lytton Gardens Assisted Living in Palo Alto.
"At first it started because I needed (community service) hours," she explained. "So I just went and played for them. They really appreciated that I'd go ... even though it was just for an hour. It wasn't even that hard for me, but I just liked it more and more -- sharing music; just doing little things for the seniors."
Her desire to volunteer her time to the community as well as to compete -- all while still studying and maintaining a social life as a teenager -- has made living an organized life absolutely crucial.
"I think having a schedule is really important," she noted. "Like last year, I didn't have one because it was just sophomore year. You know, I didn't do much. It was easy. This year, I write out what I do every hour. I have a pretty set schedule so I can get everything done."
Her next public concert will be held Saturday, Jan. 30, at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and is free to the public. On the program are Bach's Prelude and Fugue No. 5 in D Major, Book II; Beethoven's Sonata Op. 10 No. 3; and Liszt's Mephisto Waltz No. 1, among other works.
Outside of academics and performing, Chang likes to unwind by swimming, watching movies and listening to music. When asked who her favorite musician is, she smiled slyly. "I like Yuja Wang a lot!," she exclaimed. "She's just so cool on the stage with her super-short dresses! That boldness!"
Offering a few words of advice to other teens, Chang said, "To the people who haven't started (playing) music yet, you should start. Even if you don't want to make it your career, music helps. For me, I know I want to major in music, but music also relieves my stress. When I'm really stressed about school or exams, I just take an hour and focus on music. It calms me down and changes my mood."
What: Solo piano recital by Heather Hsun Chang
Where: San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Sol Joseph Recital Hall, 50 Oak St., San Francisco
When: Saturday, Jan. 30, 2:30 p.m.
Info: Go to heatherchangpiano.com or call 415-864-7326.