Practice makes perfect for 12-year-old violin prodigy

Leia Zhu returns to Israel to perform with the Tel Aviv Soloists Ensemble

LEIA ZHU performs at the Keshet Eilon Gala Concert at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center in 2017 (photo credit: MAXIM REIDER)
LEIA ZHU performs at the Keshet Eilon Gala Concert at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center in 2017
(photo credit: MAXIM REIDER)
Leia Zhu is a veteran violin soloist, having performed at some of the most prestigious venues in the UK and Europe. She’s also 12.
“God really blessed me. Already in my young age I’ve got a lot of experience, seeing different countries and different cultures with a real insight and not from stories, and acquired a lot of wider knowledge than other people,” Leia said while resting in the foyer of the Israel Conservatory after a rehearsal with the Tel Aviv Soloists Ensemble. “That goes also to music. I can understand the real meaning behind it and why the composer wanted the music to be written like that. But I wouldn’t say that I am much older than other people.”
Her performance with ensemble January 19th in Haifa and January 20th in Tel Aviv won’t be her first in Israel. In 2017 she appeared in the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center at the closing gala concert of Keshet Eilon, the much sought-after summer International Master Course for string players at Kibbutz Eilon, which she attended and plans to return this summer.
But that’s not her only Israel connection. Leia is currently a student of a London-based Israeli violin teacher Itzhak Rashkovsky of the Royal College of Music in London, who is a cofounder and the music director of Keshet Eilon. “There was an immediate chemistry between us. He is not a kind of a teacher who says “Do what I tell you”, but he listens to me and we discuss various music ideas.”
Born in Newcastle, she made her solo debut in the North East Last Night of the Proms in Newcastle City Hall in front of an audience of thousands.
At five, Leia toured four cities in the North of England as soloist with the English Philharmonic Ensemble. At six, she made her European solo debut on a three-week tour of nine cities in Spain with the Los Angeles based Classical Concert Chamber Orchestra.
Leia says that already as a baby she enjoyed listening music.
“But this was the sound of violin that attracted me most.”
She started playing before she was four, but was six when she realized that playing violin was what she really wanted to do in her life. “I was invited to tour Spain with a rather demanding program, playing a Vivaldi concerto. It was only me and the orchestra. I enjoyed performing and meeting people and I thought, ‘I want this life!’”
Leia smiles when asked how many hours a day she practices. “I probably have been asked this question thousands of times! I have school to go to, homework to do, books to read, drama class to attend, gymnastics sessions to enjoy, and of course many miles on the road when I am traveling. All those are on top of the violin practice.
“To fit in all, I just have to be efficient. I learned how to organize my day and be efficient from a very young age. This is a very useful skill to help me go a long way. It is not the end of the world if you miss a practice, but at the same time you have to listen to yourself and be honest with yourself and to understand that you need discipline to fulfill your potential.
“When I practice, I don’t count the hours, I try to focus on problem-solving. I give myself a target, what I want to achieve from today’s practice. If I conquer the problem, then I am satisfied.  If not, I try to get it right. Focused practice counts, not the hours.”
Leia says that for her, playing violin not difficult at all. “It is fun. The difficulty of making music is not the music itself, it is the progress you are making, the desire to be better, the drive to carry yourself to the direction you set for yourself, and the musical journey you share with your audience. That’s also the beauty of making music. Each time it is different.”
ON HER tours, Leia is accompanied by her mother, Yanhong Bi, who didn’t relate the usual hardships of parenting a prodigy child.
 “Ours is an easy parenthood, because Leia is so self-dependent, well-organized and efficient. She all the time surprises us and we still have not found her limit. This is her taking us on this fascinating journey. I am so glad and so pleased and so blessed to support her. I just to carry her bags and violins and organize her trips, but all credits go to her.”
Yanhong Bi says that at the age of about three-and-a-half Leia received a toy violin from her grandmother, who came from China for a visit. “She tried to play the music she heard on her toy violin and we started to look for a teacher who would teach her to play properly, and this emerged to be a true problem. Because after hearing on the phone that ‘the girl is almost four’ the teachers just cut the conversation.
“Finally, we managed to find a teacher who kindly agreed to give us a try and see whether this is really the girl who wants to play or this is just another case of pushy parents.
After listening to Leia Zhu for five minutes, she realized that the girl is special and accepted her as a student. Yet three month later she honestly admitted that she has nothing to teach the girl anymore. To make a long story short – six years ago we were lucky to meet Prof. Itzhak Rashkovsky and we hope it will continue for many years to come.
“The only thing for us is to support her and just to make sure that she is physically and mentally fit. Sometimes it can be stressful. Leia Zhu has high expectations of herself and can be self-critical, so we need to keep this balance right. We have to be around but also keep distance, to let her grow in her own way.”
Leia Zhu will perform Violin Concerto No. 5 by Mozart, Sérénade Mélancolique for Violin and Orchestra by Tchaikovsky, and a virtuoso Carmen Fantasie by Franz Waxman, with the Tel Aviv Soloists under baton of Barak Tal. The concerts are at 8:30 p.m. on January 19 at the Rappaport Center in Haifa (call 04-836-3804 for tickets) and January 20th at the Tel Aviv Conservatory (054-693-4439).