A prodigy’s promise: Guiding hands and relentless practice drive child’s progress (Chapter 3)

Shen Dai Wei practices with his violin coach, Anita Gustafson, in her Syracuse home July 2011. Michelle Gabel | mgabel@syracuse.com

By Dave Tobin | dtobin@syracuse.com
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on December 11, 2013 at 7:11 AM, updated December 11, 2013 at 7:13 AM

A prodigy’s promise: Guiding hands and relentless practice drive child’s progress (Chapter 3)

Syracuse, NY — Shen Dai Wei’s Syracuse violin debut came one afternoon three years ago at Catholic Charities Northside CYO.

It wasn’t planned. His family was waiting at the CYO’s refugee resettlement office for help with paperwork, clothing, housing, work and school. After three years in Thailand battling or evading authorities, they were finally welcome someplace.

Dai Wei’s father, Shen Xi, had told their caseworker about his son’s skill. She asked the 9-year-old to play.

Liz Causgrove, an administrative assistant at the resettlement office, was eating lunch in the next room when she overheard Dai Wei playing.

She arranged a meeting with Anita Gustafson, a violinist with the Syracuse Symphony, at the CYO.

Dai Wei started with an ambitious showpiece, “Zigeunerweisen” by Spanish composer Pablo de Sarasate.

Gustafson tried to hide her amazement. She asked for more.


Dai Wei played the first movement of Bach’s A minor concerto perfectly in tune.


He didn’t understand the word. Neither did his father. They spoke only fragments of English. Gustafson demonstrated and Dai Wei played three octaves of scales and arpeggios.

Gustafson arranged for them to attend the Syracuse Symphony concert that night. It was the last concert the bankrupt symphony would perform. From the stage she could see Dai Wei and his father in the audience. Both were wearing the bright orange caps given out by Catholic Charities.


Gifted Child Violinist Gifted child violinist Shen Dai Wei plays Partita in E Major Gigue by J.S. Bach

Gustafson wasn’t sure what she would do with Dai Wei.

He arrived in her life at a tumultuous time — and the perfect time. She and her husband, Eric, a violist, had played with the Syracuse Symphony for three decades. Suddenly they were out of work. Helping the Shens transition to life in the U.S. became their project. Music was their starting point.

Dai Wei’s violin was too big and missing a chin rest. Eric gave Dai Wei the half-size violin he had used as a child.

Gustafson sought a male instructor. Peter Rovit, a professor of violin at the Syracuse University Setnor School of Music, agreed to teach Dai Wei once a week for free.

“I wanted Dai Wei to be with somebody who would help him become a mature and expressive musician,” Gustafson said. “In the wrong hands, he could become like a trained monkey.”

Through the summer of 2011, Gustafson drove Dai Wei to lessons with Rovit. She took notes so she could team him, too.

Both Dai Wei and Gustafson found their meetings at her house to be remarkable. Without a parent monitoring him — a rare circumstance — he tasted life in an American home.

He was curious about everything, especially vehicles. Gustafson indulged him. She bought him his first toy cars and obliged a special request — a toy garbage truck. She bought him candy and other sweets.

At her house he went wild at times — climbing over furniture or pulling things out of drawers.

What was that? Innate? Cultural? Newfound freedom and abundance? Through it all, his musical progress continued to impress her.

“I believe he can be absolutely first rate if all goes well,” she said that summer. “We have to nurture him in just the right way so he doesn’t get freaked out or burned out.”

Dai Wei’s technique was rough, especially his bow work. Yet when Rovit introduced a new piece, often something by French violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer or the German composer Max Bruch, Dai Wei memorized it in days.

Gustafson had never seen anything like it. Da Wei’s secret: He studied YouTube videos of master violin performances of the new material. He’d been doing it for years in Thailand, memorizing the masters’ sound and technique.

That trick had a drawback. Dai Wei often memorized fingerings different from those Rovit had shown him.

Gustafson would try to correct Dai Wei’s fingering. After one correction he searched on her laptop for a performance by Pinchas Zukerman, one of the world’s top violinists. He zoomed in on Zukerman’s fingers, showing Gustafson the same fingering he was using.

To be learning so quickly Dai Wei had to be practicing at least a couple hours every day, Gustafson figured.

Whenever she went to the Shens’ apartment, Dai Wei kept playing his violin in his bedroom behind a closed door.

When he heard her, he peeked out. His father said something to him in Chinese. Dai Wei resumed playing.

He seemed to be playing all the time.

This is the third of a six-part series published each day through Saturday on Syracuse.com.