Alice Chenyang Xu got her first piano as a gift from her parents when she was 1 year old. So literally almost as long she can remember, the instrument was always in her life, even though she didn't start taking lessons and playing regularly until she was 6.
It should be no surprise then that 19 years later, Xu, now 25, is known at Roosevelt University as one of the most talented piano players the school has seen in its performing arts program.
Xu won a competition last year, earning her the chance to play a 25-minute solo Tuesday during Roosevelt's biggest annual student showcase concert, Vivid 2013, with the Chicago College of Performing Arts Symphony Orchestra.
"I'm very excited and nervous--probably nervous more," said Xu, who will be playing Sergei Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini."
The graduating senior has been through a lot since she first moved to the U.S. from China at 16. She knew little English when she left behind her family to study piano seriously at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where she first met her professor and mentor Meng-Chieh Liu.
"We have really great communication both personally and musically in every aspect," Xu said of her relationship with Liu. "It's difficult to find someone that you feel spiritually and mentally connected with, and he's just an amazing person. He's gone through a lot of things."
After completing her time at the Curtis Institute, Xu moved to Chicago in 2009 on Liu's advice to study piano performance at Roosevelt, where Liu is also a piano faculty member.
Xu said that she loved Chicago the moment she first visited to audition at Roosevelt and saw Lake Michigan.
"Everything's wider and broader in Chicago," Xu said. "I feel like there's more space for me to breathe. It's not like Philadelphia or New York, where the streets are narrower, and sometimes you can feel suffocated."
Although she had already been playing piano for most of her life, Xu said it wasn't until she moved to Chicago that she realized she wanted to build her life around it. The realization came after music helped her through a lengthy depression when she was still living in Philadelphia.
"That was a dark time for me, and music was the only thing that kept me going at the time," Xu said. "[Playing and listening to music] had a certain energy and was really special in a way that made me feel there was still hope to live on.
"That was about the time I realized that [playing piano] was really something I wanted to do and something I wanted to have in my life for the rest of my life."
And Xu no doubt has a very bright future ahead of her, according to Winston Choi, one of her professors at Roosevelt.
"She is a wonderfully talented pianist and a very engaging musician," Choi said. "Not only does she play the piano with ease--like child's play for her--she is a fully committed performer, invested in music at all times."
After she graduates in May, Xu is headed to the New England Conservatory in Boston to pursue a master's of music in piano performance. She hopes eventually she can strike a balance between performing and teaching--continuing to perform with other musicians and orchestras while also advising students.
Xu said she would tell other students interested in pursuing piano professionally that while the professional piano world is a difficult one, it's worth it if you have love and passion for the music. "You should absolutely believe in yourself and just keep going, because it's a tough path to walk, so believing in yourself is very important," Xu said.
Tickets for tonight's show, which begins at a 7:30 p.m., are free and can be picked up at the Auditorium Theatre box office at 50 E. Congress Pkwy. or reserved through ticketmaster.com.
Erin Vogel is a RedEye special contributor.
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