A prodigy’s promise: A young violinist’s family flees China and dazzles here (Chapter 1)
Shen Dai Wei, 12, and his family spent three years on the run from Chinese authorities, laying low in Thailand before coming to the U.S. as political refugees. In his first nine years, Dai Wei had spent just four weeks in school. With thousands of hours of practice, he had learned more about violin than almost anything else. Michelle Gabel | firstname.lastname@example.org
Syracuse, NY — On a fall evening just before his violin solo that spellbound an audience, Shen Dai Wei, then a skinny 10-year-old, ran across a lawn making car engine sounds.
Dai Wei had been fidgeting inside May Memorial Unitarian Universalist Church on Syracuse’s East Side as the Syracuse Vocal Ensemble performed. Two dozen adults in tuxedos and black dresses sang South African liberation songs. He was bored.
Outside, he jumped down concrete steps, on top of walls and down again. Two adults with him protested, worrying he’d hurt himself, but they couldn’t stop him. Eventually they guided him inside to his seat at the front.
When the singers finished, the boy picked up his violin and took their place.
He wore sneakers, a long-tailed blue shirt and necktie. Without warming up he launched into the “Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto,” a Chinese virtuoso showpiece. The big altar dwarfed him, but it soon didn’t matter. His violin wept, groaned and fluttered sweetly. He played for 15 minutes without sheet music.
When he finished, there was a moment of pregnant silence. An ovation erupted.
Dai Wei looked down, shifted his weight and tapped his foot with his bow. Before the applause faded, he tugged off his clip-on tie and ran to his mother.
Afterward one woman said she now believed in reincarnation: No child could play with such ease and depth unless he was channeling an artist from another lifetime.
The string community around Syracuse has taken notice. Adults he has played for have been dumbstruck.
“By the time he was done, I was shaking,” said Tom Hosmer, who owns Hosmer Violins in Manlius. Hosmer was among the first to hear Dai Wei weeks after the boy arrived in Syracuse in 2011.
“I have heard many young, very fine violinists, and I haven’t heard anybody who could play like he plays,” said Muriel Bodley, who directs the Syracuse Youth Orchestra. “It was like he was riding a bicycle, it seemed so easy for him.”
A year ago Dai Wei played for Elmar Oliveira, a Grammy-nominee violinist who has performed with major orchestras around the world.
“I was quite amazed at the ease with which he played, and in particular, his sense of intonation, particularly for someone so young,” Oliveira said. “He is very good. He is perhaps even better than very good.”
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.
His gift is but part of his tale.
Dai Wei and his family spent three years on the run from Chinese authorities, scraping by in Thailand before coming to the U.S. as political refugees.
In his first nine years Dai Wei spent a total of just four weeks in school. He learned more about the violin than almost anything else.
He played a banged-up instrument too big for him, taking lessons when he could in China and in Thailand. He learned a lot, perhaps most of what he knew about violin, watching YouTube videos.
Dai Wei’s talent brings his father enormous pride. With it comes a deep hope for his son’s future and a sense of duty to help him develop his remarkable skill.
“It was me who found he had a gift,” said his father, Shen Xi. “I tried to awaken his huge ability.”
Parents of exceptionally talented children might know the lure of the dream: If my child works with everything he has and I support him hard enough, he can be great.
Dai Wei has spent thousands of hours practicing violin. His father has made sure.
When you’ve been imprisoned for your political beliefs and had your professional career stripped away, you will go to extraordinary lengths to ensure a better life for your child.
What your child wants can be another matter.
This is the first of a six-part series published each day through Saturday on Syracuse.com.
Dave Tobin can be reached at 470-3277, email@example.com or via Twitter: @dttobin