Watching Owen Qiu play the piano is almost as interesting as hearing him play. The 10-year-old Flin Flonner, now one of Saskatchewan’s top juvenile pianists, moves with the music along the keyboard, fingers deftly hitting each key in perfect time.
It’s his technique and performing ability that has given Qiu one of western Canada’s brightest honours for musicians his age.
Qiu received a gold medal for receiving the highest mark in Saskatchewan for Grade 6 Royal Conservatory of Music piano players last year. Qiu’s talent and manner of playing earned him a 95 per cent score, better than any other Saskatchewan musician could do.
Qiu only began to play the piano four years ago, aged six. His mother, also a pianist in her youth, helped inspire the youngster to tinkle the ivories.
“I pressed some keys and I liked it. I asked my mom if I could get into a lesson and see if I could play a song,” he said.
“One time, my mom showed me videos of someone else playing and he was really good. I thought, ‘If I could play like that, it could be really cool.’ I liked it.”
Once he began formal training, Qiu picked up the instrument’s quirks and traits quickly. Not long after he and his family moved to Flin Flon, he began working with piano teacher Susan Fulford.
“I thought he came with some good skills and we could build on that. It’s been a wonderful journey because he’s a student who really works at it. I think his mom helped him in the beginning, but I think Owen has really taken ownership of his music and I think that’s really exciting,” said Fulford.
Through his training, Qiu discovered the intricacies of what creates the best pianists and performances. There’s more than just hitting every note at just the right time – there is an art involved, almost totally hidden to untrained eyes and ears.
“When I was little, I used to just think if I could play it really good, then that would be fine. There’s lots more stuff to it – articulation, dynamics, rhythm, all these things have to be good,” he said.
A perfectionist, Qiu has learned how to handle making mistakes with his mother’s help.
“When I was little, when I messed up, I didn’t feel very good. My mom helped me a lot, because she played some piano when she was younger and she could help me a little bit. She pushed me and helped keep me going. Every time she was beside me, it helped me feel like I could do it a little better.”
“He’s grown so much as a pianist,” Fulford said.
When Qiu was first told about the Royal Conservatory exams two years ago, he didn’t know much about them.
“At the start, I didn’t know anything about the exams or anything. I just thought it was about playing songs and liking it. When I first heard about it, I think it was about age eight or nine,” he said.
The exam process is in-depth and can be intimidating to young players. Qiu was nervous at first, but hit his stride quickly.
“There’s a technique, with scales and sight-reading. There’s a book where you’re supposed to just see little parts of songs and you try to play them and do the rhythm,” he said.
“Sometimes, there’s theory, where you learn notes and you learn the different things about piano – rests and such.”
Fulford shone some light on the process behind the testing.
“In the components, he needs to write the exam and get the highest mark in his grade level to be even considered for that. It’s not just about technical proficiency. Most of the marks are on the pieces and that requires artistry. They’re grading you not just on your performance, but how musical you are and how you express yourself at the piano,” she said.
When Qiu was first told of his result - that he finished tops in the province – back in June, he didn’t know how to respond. Mostly, he was confused.
“When [Susan] first told me, I thought, ‘Oh, well, there must be someone better than me. I couldn’t have been.’”
“I also didn’t really think of it happening so I didn’t have a really big reaction. I just said, ‘Oh. Whoa.’”
Among Grade 6 Royal Conservatory of Music students in Saskatchewan, Qiu’s star shone brightest. While the title sounds similar to a school grade level, the music education is more intensive – Fulford estimates it’s about the equivalent of a Grade 10 music course. As part of his finish, Qiu got the chance to perform as part of a provincial gala at the University of Regina in late November. Twice in the past, Qiu has been chosen to play at an annual provincial festival in Manitoba, playing in both Winnipeg and Brandon.
Not bad for a 10-year-old.
“He’s young for a Grade 6 level – he’s playing really above his age because Grade 6, with his required theory, is a Grade 10 equivalency course,” said Fulford.
“It’s not something you just jump into and write – you have to put in years of practice.”
“Those marks are not like school marks. There’s so much discretion in the musicianship – that’s not just in the technique,” Fulford added.
Qiu is now beginning his next step on the piano, preparing for the Grade 8 provincial stage.
“Right now, he’s working on Grade 8 and doing very well. I gave him some pieces and went away for two months and he’s just... yeah,” said Fulford, laughing.
Qiu isn’t sure what the future holds for his talent on the keys, but he hopes he can someday share what he’s learned with young students.
“I haven’t thought about that a lot. I just really want to get through the high levels so I can play the piano really well.”
“I wasn’t thinking of playing big concerts or anything when I’m older.”