A prodigy’s promise: In America, freedom and frustrations everywhere (Chapter 5)

A prodigy’s promise: In America, freedom and frustrations everywhere (Chapter 5)

By Dave Tobin | dtobin@syracuse.com
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on December 13, 2013 at 7:20 AM, updated December 13, 2013 at 7:24 AM

Syracuse, NY — The man on the computer screen waved his hand for Shen Dai Wei to stop.

He spoke through a galuppy, watery Internet connection on the other side of the world. Then he played his violin, the sound static-broken and faint.

Dai Wei was in Syracuse. Feng Jia Yao was in China, leading a violin lesson from 8,000 miles away.

Dai Wei’s Syracuse violin instructors felt he was being pushed too hard and needed a break. They had stopped teaching him for a few months.

But Dai Wei, then a 9-year-old recent refugee from China and Thailand, was scheduled to play in a concert. His father, Shen Xi, wanted him to play a Chinese composition called “Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto.”

So Shen reconnected with Dai Wei’s first successful violin instructor, from four years earlier in China.

On Sunday mornings Shen fired up his laptop in the glare of Dai Wei’s white bedroom and called Feng via Skype. Dai Wei played. Feng commented.

“His bow strokes are weak,” Feng said, according to Shen’s translation. “His rhythm and pace are inconsistent. His vibrato is boring. He has a good sense of pitch. He can identify and play complex musical passages. He is very gifted.”

Occasionally the prodigy mumbled something.

As Feng talked, Dai Wei picked up some metal scissors and poked them inside the shade of a desk lamp.

Dai Wei rosined his bow and played another passage as if in a trance. He sped up, finished at a breakneck pace and stepped away from the laptop’s camera lens.

Eyes to the floor, bow hanging from one hand, violin in the other, the child awaited Feng’s assessment.

“He doesn’t understand the music in his heart,” said Feng, through Shen’s translation. “He has no depth. He needs life experience. He needs to understand the culture.”

At school, Dai Wei struggled even more.

In the fall of 2011 he had started fourth grade at Roberts School, where attended the last three weeks of the previous school year. Weeks into the new year, school officials started calling and writing to his parents.

After taunts by students on the school bus, Dai Wei took off his shoes and hit students with them, according to one letter. At school he ran into the girls’ restroom one time, Shen said.

Shen struggled to make sense of the reports. Dai Wei’s only previous school experience had been one month in kindergarten in China. He had never interacted much with other children. In China, boys and girls shared a restroom, Shen said. Maybe Dai Wei was reluctant to tell teachers he was being picked on, Shen said.

“This is USA and the culture and institutions are much different from China and Thailand,” Shen said. “We told him the seriousness of his doing. I think he was scared. I know he did not do it deliberately. He doesn’t know.”

But one of his violin coaches, Anita Gustafson, thought otherwise. She saw in Dai Wei a gifted, hyperactive boy who seemed compelled to push limits.

With him at the Rosamond Gifford Zoo, Gustafson and her husband had to pull Dai Wei back from climbing in the bear pit, she said. At Wegmans, he pushed a shopping cart like a race car through aisles, threatening shoppers, displays and his baby brother riding in the cart.

To get another opinion about his musical potential, Gustafson arranged for Dai Wei to play for Elmar Oliveira, a Grammy-nominated violinist, in 2011.

Dai Wei played for Oliveira during a Syracuse Symphony rehearsal break at the Onondaga County Civic Center, but not before racing around the stage, grabbing objects and clambering up spiral stairs.

Dai Wei obviously needs the best musical training, Oliveira said in an email. But more important, he said, Dai Wei needs to “address problems of concentration and attention and how to funnel energy in a constructive rather than destructive way.”
Oliveira noticed that when Dai Wei played violin, he locked in. When Dai Wei’s concentration strayed, it was difficult to bring it back.

In his own life, Dai Wei’s father was having frustrations and doubts.

He had passed his driver’s test and bought a car, but his work at Terrell’s potato chip plant was depressing. He’d been a college-educated TV journalist before he fled China.

“A monkey can do this,” he said of his job sorting potatoes.

Shen acknowledged his parenting was more demanding than that of most Americans, who he said spoil their children. But he wondered if he was pushing too much.

“If I put too much pressure on him, I fear his nerves cannot abide it,” he said. “If I shape him only by force, I will make him hate violin and music and it’s a terrible loss.”

Through this latest chaotic episode, music was the one constant, the thing that seemed to focus Dai Wei and his father.

School officials decided to transfer Dai Wei to Edward Smith School, the only city public school with a string orchestra. Dai Wei’s father hoped it would help his son fit in.

“I think if he meets some children who are also learning an instrument, he will do better,” he said. This is the fifth of a six-part series published each day through Saturday on Syracuse.com