Student Spotlight: Zirui Zhang


James Qian, Photojournalist

Normally, high school students say they want to pursue an academic career related to fields such as business, journalism, law, sports, teaching, etc. However, high school students can confidently say that they would like to go to live a life based on music such as one student at YLHS, Zirui Zhang (12) who stands out from the crowd.


Zirui started playing the piano starting from the age of 4. His story of how he actually started playing the instrument is quite interesting. “My parents thought I was a irritating, hyper, little kid,” he explains. “To keep my butt glued to the seat, they gave me a Yamaha keyboard. Ironically, I loved it.”


Of course, that is not all to his story. Growing up classically trained on the piano, Zirui actually did not become serious until the end of his 8th grade year. “My parents never thought I had any decent musical capability,” he goes on about the time he decided to devote himself to music, “yet my mother thought I should have a chance to meet Elena [Makarova].” Elena Makarova is one of Southern California’s best piano teachers. Zirui’s mother was able to find out about this teacher through a friend who knew the mother of one of Makarova’s students, Eden Chen. Eden was without a doubt Makarova’s best student at the time, and Zirui was able to meet him before meeting his teacher. After attending one of Eden’s competitions, Zirui’s family finally had a chance to meet Makarova and then scheduled a time to see how Zirui played.


When it came time to let Makarova observe Zirui’s skills as a pianist, she was at first skeptical to accept him as a student because of how he might be a bit too old to have started getting serious; however, because of Zirui’s hands being an “acceptable size,” she took him as one of her own students at her music school, Moscow Music Center.


Although Zirui was able to get such a good teacher, it was not easy for him to have gotten to where he is now. He recalls: “I remember having to restart piano from scratch. I had all a typical student’s bad habits. Any student from Elena’s music school probably was better than me.” Once Zirui started learning from Makarova and during his freshman year in high school, he unwillingly excluded himself from the majority of his social life to focus on piano. He said, “My biggest struggle was trying to swallow all the negativity I had to live with. Because of my devotion to piano, my grades were damaged and I barely hung out with anyone outside of school.” Zirui thought this was the riskiest, most insane life investment he has ever done:

“Sometimes, I am plagued by the idea of failing. I question to myself if it was worth sacrificing the things I sacrificed. Privately, I often got depressed knowing that I was never the first person anyone ever looked forward to seeing. I would wonder what would have happened if I invested more time into my social life. I know my career is not stable, yet I know I have caught up to many people. My next step is to get into a decent music program.”

However, Zirui’s hard work eventually paid off when he was invited to perform at Carnegie Hall the summer after his freshman year, a little over a year after studying with Makarova. Many would think that he would have been extremely excited to have performed at such an iconic performing center, yet he only reacted with a modest feeling that he can now accomplish greater things. “Normally, after any big task I achieve, I still feel calm,” he explains. “I have less opposing forces from society to tell me that I am a commoner.”

With such devotion and dedication to this instrument, he made the decision to commit to pursuing a career in music with the piano during his first year learning with Makarova. For the next few years until now, Zirui is still studying with Makarova and has been recovering from his social invisibility. After his Carnegie Hall performance, Zirui has since been able to complete his Certificate of Merit and go on through the paneled stage which he was able to have a masterclass with Vadim Monastirsky, an internationally acclaimed pianist. As Zirui’s opportunities have been growing, he must is now currently focused on auditions for colleges and conservatories; he has informed that he is invited to audition for USC’s Thornton School of Music, which is one of the best music schools in the west coast, University of Michigan and Bard College Conservatory of Music.


Within a few months, Zirui will hopefully get accepted into one of the schools and then graduate from high school. As he is about to embark on a journey away from home, he will, without a doubt, nourish all the resources to ultimately achieve his lifetime dream:

“My dream is to go to Poland to develop a very sensitive style and return as a composer. We need more pushy classical composers who can make smart business decisions to both get their music out to the world and update fresh, relevant musical ideas. Otherwise, classical music will continue to fade away because the current classical musicians cannot change their image of being stuck on past composers such as either Mozart or Haydn. They could even get secretly suppressed by shady business moves. I often get excitement to hear a band’s next album, yet I used to question where the new classical music.”

Wherever Zirui goes, may he be wished all the luck!