A prodigy’s promise: Can this child violinist be exceptional and normal? (Chapter 6)

The Gift Gifted 12-year-old violinist, Shen Dai Wei and his father, Shen Xi, talk about balancing childhood and nurturing Dai Wei’s musical gifts.

Shen Dai Wei complains to Edward Elementary School music teacher Ann Kupferberg about a violin that wouldn’t stay in tune during a music class in October 2011. Dai Wei’s only school experience before Syracuse had been one month in kindergarten in China. Michelle Gabel | mgabel@syracuse.com

Dai Wei Shen with Peter Rovit in November 2012. At left is Dai Wei’s father, Shen Xi. Michelle Gabel | mgabel@syracuse.com

Dai Wei talks with his LeMoyne College Orchestra standmate Arianne Van Cleef, a nursing freshman, right, and Cynthia Dowsland, of Utica, a biology senior, as they wait outside the music room to play for Travis Newton, the music director at LeMoyne College, who was assessing the students individually before an upcoming concert in December 2012. Michelle Gabel | mgabel@syracuse.com

Dai Wei, the youngest member of the LeMoyne College Orchestra, talks with LeMoyne College music director Travis Newton after playing for him in November 2012. Newton was assessing orchestra members before an upcoming concert in December 2012. Michelle Gabel | mgabel@syracuse.com

Dai Wei plays with other violinists at the LeMoyne College strings camp August 2012. Michelle Gabel | mgabel@syracuse.com

A prodigy’s promise: Can this child violinist be exceptional and normal? (Chapter 6)

By Dave Tobin | dtobin@syracuse.com
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on December 14, 2013 at 5:45 AM, updated December 14, 2013 at 12:50 PM

Syracuse, NY — Shen Dai Wei’s transfer from Roberts to Edward Smith School in Syracuse improved a few things for him.

The school was closer to his house and more ethnically diverse, with more Asian students. It removed him from a setting where he got into trouble. It had a musical strings program and a strings orchestra.


The Shens, political refugees from China and Thailand, had been in the U.S. for only seven months. Shen Xi and his wife, Rong Ping, were still seeking the best place for their prodigy, then 9, who startled adults with his talent and his lack of discipline.

Shen Xi hoped that by associating with children who were also studying a musical instrument, Dai Wei would fit in, be inspired and behave.

Dai Wei’s first day in strings class dashed that hope.

A Chinese girl carrying her own violin led Dai Wei from gym class to the music room. Dai Wei didn’t have his violin that day, so the teacher, Ann Kupferberg, gave him one. She played an “A” on a piano. He tuned and tuned, grimacing. He asked for rosin and furiously rubbed his bow.

“This violin is too stupid,” he said. “It’s bad.”

Kupferberg gave him another. Bits of tape were stuck to the fingerboard like frets on a guitar.

The Chinese girl placed a piece of music on a stand in front of Dai Wei. Kupferberg gave a downbeat and all six students started playing “The Majestic March,” a piece with the rhythm of sawing wood. They stopped. Dai Wei went to the piano and struck the “A” key, then tuned some more.

“It doesn’t want to stay in tune, does it?” Kupferberg said. He didn’t answer.

“You want to play with us?” she asked.


“Come play with us.”

“It’s a baby piece.”

“I know it’s a baby piece. We can’t all play what you play.”

The class moved on to the “Popcorn Prelude,” which calls for violinists to sit and stand through the piece. Dai Wei did not sit.

As class ended, he flashed a wicked ten-second riff a world apart from what they’d just played. He never came back to that class.

“I didn’t press the point,” Kupferberg said. “I figured if he wanted to come he would.”

Before Smith, Dai Wei seemed to be squandering his talent. He could not figure how to fit his uncommon potential into something like a normal childhood. He was faltering from the effects of a childhood on the run across three countries and some of the bull-headedness with which any parent might sympathize.

But in two years at Smith and under the firm but gentle hands of a series of adults, Dai Wei began to turn it around.

His fifth-grade teacher, Timothy Shults, noted on his last report card that Dai Wei “has put forth great effort; is a great mathematical thinker; has completed all homework and assignments.”

XI, his father, is working at Dunkin Donuts’ central bakery in Syracuse. Like many fathers, he worries about bad influences from other kids and the lure of computer games on his son. Dai Wei can spend hours on the computer playing video games.

Dai Wei’s mother, Rong Ping, continues to raise his young brother, Dai Lei, who has shown none of his older brother’s musical aptitude.

On Xi’s day off, he takes Dai Wei to his weekly lesson.

Peter Rovit, who now teaches violin at Ithaca College, has been instructing Dai Wei weekly for two years.

“Maybe only Peter has the patience and the big heart to help my son,” said Xi.

Rovit has helped Dai Wei break bad violin habits and steered him toward new ones.

He first forbade Dai Wei from watching videos of master violinists so he could teach Dai Wei proper technique. Now he lets Dai Wei watch those same videos to listen for tone. Having once told Dai Wei and his father to stop practicing — Dai Wei was practicing six hours a day — Rovit is slowly increasing practice time to two and three hours a day.

Rovit has Dai Wei keep a “practice journal” to focus on goals and play consciously so his practice doesn’t become mechanical.

He’s encouraged Dai Wei to play with other children who are serious about music, although such options in Central New York are few.

This past year, 11-year-old Dai Wei played with the Le Moyne College Chamber Orchestra. He shared a music stand with Arianne Van Cleef, 19, a freshman nursing student.

Van Cleef said Dai Wei didn’t much need the music stand. He memorized music a week after it was introduced to them.

They became friends. She would remind him to sit still. He helped her with her fingering and told her when her violin was out of tune.

“He’s very particular with how he plays,” she said. “It seems like he has a passion for it.”

Rovit helped Dai Wei secure a half-scholarship to Kinhaven Music School’s two-week summer violin camp in Weston, Vt., that boasts such musical alumni as Syracuse native guitarist Eliot Fisk. Rovit suggested the Vermont camp because it is “not a practice boot camp … not fixated on music alone.”

But at Kinhaven, one of the safest, most supportive places a young violinist could find himself, Dai Wei’s problematic behavior returned. He chased and sprayed a boy with bug spray, hid for 20 minutes and refused to answer adults’ questions. The school sent him home four days early.

“It’s not just about the playing,” Rovit said afterward. “It’s how you relate to people, especially faculty and teachers.”

Reaching the point of having a professional career playing a musical instrument, particularly classical violin, is “a long game,” Rovit said.

Is that something Dai Wei wants?

Asked that question, Dai Wei shrugs. Rovit is not surprised.

“At age 11, when you’ve been playing so long, I don’t think you really know,” he said.

Although Dai Wei said recently it was “weird” playing with older kids in a college orchestra, he is beginning to accept it.

The grown-ups in Dai Wei’s life have found a way to advance his adult-sized talents while letting him more often just be a kid.

His parents and their allies continue to learn when to push, when to pull back. As with any kid, it’s a lesson that needs constant revisiting.

While Dai Wei’s destiny is far from clear, he has already come a long way to discover what every kid must: The thing that sets you apart can be your way to fit in.

This is the sixth of a six-part series published this week on Syracuse.com.