Talon Smith might only be 14, but he has a pretty good idea of what he wants to be doing 10 years from now. And it involves piano.
“I hope that I will be playing sold-out concerts in front of audiences all over the world,” says Talon, a Fresno native. “I also hope to have many published compositions and recorded music for sale as well. Possibly married?”
Talon, who is home-schooled, has good reason to be optimistic about the future. On June 18 he walked away with a first-place gold medal and $10,000 after winning the 11-14 age division at the 2016 Gina Bachauer International Junior Artists Piano Competition in Salt Lake City. He studies with teachers Rufus Choi of Los Angeles and Eduardus Halim of New York.
We caught up with Talon via email to talk about what this win means for him.
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Q: You were one of 25 pianists from nine countries. Were you nervous?
A: At the competition itself, I played three times. It was a new adventure that strengthened my faith and perseverance. Each time we would play, we would be backstage about five minutes before the pianist before us had finished playing. The person that I always followed in performance order was Miyu Shindo, from Japan, who ended up winning third place. Miyu is an extremely good pianist. So I would sit there for five minutes listening to her wonderful performance knowing I had to go out and perform right after her. After the first round, I settled into the fact she is a fantastic pianist and I just had to go out there and do my best.
Q: Give us some background on the competition.
A: It is celebrating its 40th year. The name of the foundation was given in honor of the great Greek pianist Gina Bachauer who studied under the legendary Alfred Cortot and Sergei Rachmaninoff. The Gina Bachauer Foundation is known around the world for discovering talent. They take great pride in the audition and selection process of its international competitors. Pianists are selected to compete only after auditioning in live performances before an audience and international jury.
Q: What events led to you being selected?
A: Prior to these past 10 months, my piano life had mainly revolved around Fresno. In August of 2015, my lessons started with one of my current teachers, Rufus Choi, in Southern California. Last fall he asked my mom to seek out piano competitions for me to gain more performance experience. My mom (Lori Smith) found the Gina Bachauer Competition three days after the registration had closed. However, they had one audition spot left in New York City that they would let me fill if we wanted to. This meant I had six weeks to prepare for the audition. Mr. Choi was very familiar with the competition and told us we should take the spot. I told Mr. Choi I did not want to do this as I did not think I would be ready. He told me to try, so my parents agreed, and off we went to New York City for the audition.
The official competitors were not announced until March 2016. I remember one day my mom and I were driving to Los Angeles for my piano lesson and we pulled over to get a drink. My mom was being silly and she said, “I really want to know today if they have made their selections!” She picked up her phone to call them and there was an email announcing me as an official competitor. It was exciting news!
Q: What did you play during the competition?
A: In round one, I played Beethoven’s Sonata in A Major, Op. 2 No. 2 and one of my compositions, the first movement to my Sonata in A-flat Minor. In round two, I played Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in D Major from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Bk. 1 and the first and third movements of Schumann’s Fantasy in C Major, Op. 17. In the final round, I played the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto in B-flat Minor, Op. 23.
Q: You started off playing violin at age 4, and then took up the piano at age 5 1/2 . Do you remember the day when your parents brought home a piano?
A: I remember the story more than the day. My mom (Lori Smith) wanted me to try piano lessons, so she went shopping at garage sales and bought a piano for $100. Then, she called my dad (Greg Smith) and told him she had just bought a piano and asked him if he would find a way to get it home. My dad rented a motorcycle trailer, and then he and my uncle picked up the piano and brought it home. I started lessons shortly after that and played on that piano for years. However, a few years ago, my very generous parents bought me a brand new Steinway B to practice on. I do remember that day.
Q: Who were your piano teachers in the Fresno area?
A: I studied first with Brian Hammons, who made the piano very fun. Then I studied with Andreas Werz at Fresno State. After that, I studied with Carol Oaks. I am grateful to all of them, as well as my violin and choir teachers, as they have all contributed to my growth as a musician.
Q: You started composing at age 8. Which do you enjoy more: composing or playing?
A: I think I might like playing better, although I enjoy both.
Q: How many hours a day do you practice?
A: My daily routine is busy. We study a lot of subjects at home and I usually have one or two online classes going on each semester as well. I do not time my practice. I just come and go on the piano throughout the day in between school and other activities.
Q: You have seven dogs. What are their names? Do any of them show a special affinity toward your piano playing?
A: Browny is our house dog. Our outside dogs are Agnes, Brutus, Julius, Whitey, Bovo and Scout. I think Browny may have a special affinity to my piano playing as she lies near my bench each day as I play. There have been times when Agnes has come to the window to listen, and Brutus is always peeking in anytime he can.
Q: What else do you like to do for fun besides playing piano and composing?
A: I like to play ultimate Frisbee and football, play with our dogs, spend time with my parents and listen to classical music.
Q: Give me three words to describe yourself.
A: Available for hire!
Q: Tell us a little about your parents and how they’ve supported you in your piano dream. Are either of them musicians?
A: My dad has sung in choirs and played a little classical guitar. My mom is not a musician, but she gives me great advice about things such as how to get the sound that I want out of the piano. My parents have both always been extremely supportive and encouraging of me in all aspects of my life as well as my music. My mom does the majority of the legwork for my piano career because my dad works a lot, but he is 100% on board as well. We are a team and each of us has our roles, but we are all in it together as a family. I am very blessed and grateful for my parents.
Q: What do you think your next big competition will be?
A: My mom is still finalizing my schedule for this next season but so far it looks like the 2017 Hilton Head International Piano Competition might be one of them.
Most of the big competitions, like the Gina Bachauer International Piano Competition, are on 2- and 4-year rotation cycles, so those are more long-term goals. Lord willing, I will do the Gina Bachauer when it comes around again, in addition to the Cliburn, and the International Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Liszt, and Schumann competitions. There are too many to list but I do want to be active in them. However, more importantly, I want to be touring and performing concerts.
Q: Along with a gold medal, you also won a $10,000 prize. What will you do with the money?
A: For right now, I will put it in a savings account and possibly invest it later.
Q: Do you have a role model?
A: My special role model is Jesus Christ in all areas of my life. As far as piano playing, it depends on what composer is being played. I like different pianists for different composers.
Q: Anything to add?
A: My favorite music quote is from J. S. Bach. He said that “the aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.” That is what I want my purpose in music to be.