A prodigy’s promise: What if he doesn’t love the music? (Chapter 4)

A prodigy’s promise: What if he doesn’t love the music? (Chapter 4)

Dai Wei runs out onto the front porch when his violin coach, Anita Gustafson, left, asked him to play the Chinese composition called the Butterfly Lovers’ Concerto during a coaching session July 2011. Gustafson carried Dai Wei back into the house, reassuring him. Michelle Gabel | mgabel@syracuse.com

By Dave Tobin | dtobin@syracuse.com
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on December 12, 2013 at 7:26 AM, updated December 12, 2013 at 11:33 AM

Syracuse, N.Y. — At 9 years old, Shen Dai Wei’s uncanny skill on the violin was accompanied by troubling signs.

When he wasn’t focused on playing his violin, he acted up.

He stabbed his sheet music with a pencil and poked holes in it. He scrawled “bad violin” across his music. He used his bow to strike things, including his violin.

One afternoon, his violin coach, Anita Gustafson, ran through a training exercise. She played a note on her piano, he identified it. He found it easy. He can recognize any note.

He started pestering Gustafson, pushing her limit. He blew on her hair, struck piano keys randomly and pulled off an ivory. Settle down, she told him. He ran out the front door onto the porch.

Gustafson was exasperated. Was Dai Wei, a recent political refugee from China and Thailand, having trouble adjusting to American life? Was he pushing too hard? Did he even like violin?

For the second time in his young life, he and his family were finding their way in a new country. They had arrived in Syracuse five months before, in March 2011. Dai Wei’s violin playing had become his calling card, his way to fit in.

Gustafson spent a couple of afternoons with him every week. Her husband, Eric, helped the boy’s father learn to drive and shop for a car. The Gustafsons would take Dai Wei to the zoo or the science museum.

For the last three weeks of the school year, Dai Wei attended Roberts School. It was his first time in a classroom since the month he had spent in kindergarten in China. He started third grade.

No one at Roberts spoke Chinese. He spoke little English.

His teacher, Kathy Kurgan, had heard about his violin and asked him to play. She hoped it would break the ice.

As Dai Wei played, students and teachers crowded around. Kurgan was stunned, she said. She sent a student to bring Paul Goodness, a music teacher.

“I thought, ‘Wow. What do you do with a third-grader that can play better than a lot of professionals?’ ” Goodness said. “Where do you put him? Obviously, you can’t challenge him.”

Gustafson continued coaching Dai Wei through the summer. His gift for learning complex musical pieces astounded her.

One afternoon they were playing a Bach violin duet. They started and their sheet music fell. Dai Wei kept playing. She stopped to pick up the sheet music, then finished the piece with him.

“You came in late,” he scolded her. In the first week they played it together, he had already memorized the piece.

During breaks they would put aside their violins and sit on the floor. Dai Wei was starved for child’s play. He loves trucks, cars and hand tools, Gustafson discovered. They rolled vehicles back and forth. They played hide and seek, blew soap bubbles and went for walks.

In those moments, the violin prodigy became a child again, laughing and using his rapidly improving English. He talked about his life and how much he practiced — as much as six hours a day.

Concerned, Gustafson probed.

“Do you like violin?” she asked.

He didn’t answer.

“Do you like music?”

He didn’t answer.

What was Gustafson to do with this child?

“I think kids should be kids,” she said. “I don’t think kids at that age should be playing violin four hours a day.”

In September, when his instructor, Peter Rovit, returned to Syracuse, she shared her concerns with him. Rovit and Gustafson met with Dai Wei’s father, Shen Xi, and told him that his son needed a break. They would not work with him for two months.
Don’t force Dai Wei, they said. Let him practice when he wants.

But Dai Wei was scheduled to perform at two concerts in October. He had to be ready.

“When children are young, they don’t like to learn,” said Shen. “If you let them be, you will waste their future. So you have to guide them.”

Shen found someone who could help. In China.