“So Young, So Talented”
June 18, 2008
By Alice Keesing

‘Playing from the heart,’ plus long hours of practice, earn Honolulu teens Maile Cha and T.J. Tario a place in next week’s prestigious New York Piano Competition.

T.J. Tario couldn’t wait for summer. Summer means more time to play the piano, that is. At just 14, this musical whiz happily spends as many as l0 hours a day practicing his craft. This summer he’s got a lot to practice for, too. He and fellow pianist Maile Cha,17, are heading to the Big Apple, where they will compete in next week’s hotly competitive New York Piano Competition.

Only 22 students from across the country made it to the competition, so it’s an accomplishment to have two from Hawaii. And both T.J. and Maile are students of the renowned and beloved piano teacher Ellen Masaki.

Masaki has taught thousands of young Hawaii pianists in her 57-year career and she counts T.J. and Maile among the best.

“They both play from the heart,” she says. Both teens have all the credentials — they have played with the Honolulu Symphony, appeared on NPR’s From the Top and won an impressive number of awards. T.J. placed third in an international field last year.

For the upcoming New York competition they need a huge repertoire, including a finger-defying piece specially commissioned for the competition by American composer John Musto.

“It’s fiendishly difficult,” Masaki says. “The fugue is 13 pages and it goes like the wind.”

When T.J. sat down to rehearse the piece recently at Masaki’s Ward Avenue studio, his fingers flew across the keys, completely undaunted. When T.J. plays, it’s pure emotion.

“It’s like I’m in my own world,” he says. “It’s hard to explain, but it’s like a whole story comes out of the piece when I’m playing.” People call him a prodigy, but T.J. shakes his head. “I think I have a talent given to me by God,” he says. “And I’m very blessed to have it.”

T.J. has been playing since before he can even remember. His mom, Karli, says he’s always had a connection with music. When he was a baby he would move to the beat whenever she put on music. These days he loves it all, from classical to Hawaiian to hip-hop.

When he was a toddler he asked for a piano. And Karli Tario confirms that, yes indeed, her son does practice those long hours every dayóon his own accord.

T.J. volunteers that this is a bit out there, “but I’m trying to work hard,” he says. Still, he assures that he does have time for other things. He recently graduated from the eighth grade at Kamehameha Schools and, like any teen, he enjoys the movies and the beach. He also has a theatrical bent and has spent time with Diamond Head Theatre’s Shooting Stars program. But music is his passion.

It’s the same for Maile — she also has music memories that go way back to small kid times.

“When I was little, like 3, my parents would put on opera, like Cecilia Bartoli, and I used to sing with her,” she says.

Maile started studying piano with Masaki when she was 7.

“She’s won all kinds of competitions, year after year,” Masaki says. “The judges love her performances because she plays with a lot of sensitivity. And she’s very good with Mozart.”

Maile is considering a career in music, but she also has an eye on medicine. She muses that perhaps she could do a double major like former Honolulu Symphony maestro Dr. Sam Wong.

“I could be like a piano-playing doctor,” she says with her gentle smile.

Maile is home-schooled and spends as many as four hours at the piano every day. Days off? She pretends to consider that question for a split second. No way, she deadpans.

“Practice isn’t as much fun but you’ve got to do it,” she says. “I like performing. Especially with the other kids, it’s really fun. (She and her colleagues are currently preparing for a five-piano concert on the Big Island.) When you’re in a group you’re not stressed out, but when you’re playing solo it’s more nerve-wracking.”

Still, Maile seems to have those nerves under control as she heads to New York.

“I can’t wait,” she says. “I think it’s going to be so much fun.”

“Fun,” in this case, means facing a jury of distinguished judges and acing a 45-minute solo program including preludes, etudes and the first movements of sonatas and concertos ñ all from memory. There are no eliminations in this competition, so every contestant has to be ready for all four rounds.

The upside of that is that no competitor goes home unrecognized, either. In this competition, which is presented by the Stecher and Horowitz Foundation, each student receives at least $1,250, and those who place in the top five may take home up to $5,000. They also are eligible for concert and recital appearances.

As if that isnít heady enough, T.J. will then travel to Minnesota where he’s competing in the International e-Piano Junior Competition. Twenty students from around the world are competing and T.J. is only one of two invited from the United States.

“I’d just like to represent Hawaii the best that I can,” he says. “Hopefully l can do good up there and bring home good news.”