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Playing the piece

See the piece. Play the piece. Master the piece. Perform the piece. For senior Katrina Villavert, playing the piano is as natural as breathing.

Villavert first started to play the piano at 5 years old under her grandmother’s instruction and encouragement. After two years, her grandmother signed her up for music classes at Walnut Yamaha, where Villavert continues to take lessons after 12 years of playing.

“My grandparents were really into music when I was a child, and they had a piano at their house. Whenever my grandmother would babysit me, I’d play on the keys,” Villavert said. “After a little while, she began to notice that I had some interest in the music, [and] that’s when she started teaching me how to play. I feel like after playing the piano for so long, I’ve just developed a passion for it.”

This is Villavert’s 10th year taking piano lessons from Yamaha piano instructor Rebecca Wu, who helped Villavert develop proficiency in music theory and study many pieces from a diverse range of music genres. She began competing at 8 years old and now competes on an average of three times a year. She competes in the Southwestern Youth Music Festival (SYMF) at Cal State Long Beach every summer since 2007 and in the annual Music Teacher’s Association of California (MTAC) festivals in Irvine.

“When I started competing, I felt like I really enjoyed it so I always wanted to practice and improve my skill set. Competitions are what inspired me to keep on playing, to become a better pianist and to become more accomplished,” Villavert said.

Villavert focuses all of her time and energy into practicing for her competitions. She first reaped the benefits of her hard work at 8 years old when she placed fourth at the SYMF at Cal State Long Beach. She has since won first place at several Music Teachers’ Association of California competitions in Irvine and her most recent award was first place at the MTAC Classical Festival in November 2016.

“These competitions teach me about perseverance. Even though I’ve won a lot, not every competition is easy. There are times where I’ve made the slightest mistakes after preparing for hours. I think the biggest thing I take away from competing is that it teaches me how much I love to play the piano,” Villavert said. “Even if I lose the competition, it’s important to understand that making these mistakes should not prevent me from what I love to do. Competitions always remind me of why I love to play the piano.”

On a normal schedule, Villavert juggles numerous school activities and practices around one or two hours on weekdays and more on the weekends. When preparing for a competition, Villavert practices a minimum of two hours on weekdays and a minimum of four on weekends. She will usually perform a song that she’s been practicing for a few months and has already mastered.

“Aside from practicing, being mentally prepared is also very important. There [were] times [when] I wasn’t ready during a competition. I’ve also sometimes been unfocused, thinking about other things during the competition. I wasn’t focused on playing freely and playing how I normally do,” Villavert said. “Sometimes I’ll be thinking that I need to play perfectly and trying not to make mistakes, but I think when you’re competing it’s also important to keep in mind that you need to be mentally stable, relaxed. You just need to be enjoying the competition and doing your best.”

Despite her dedication to the piano, Villavert is not successful in every competition.

“I remember one specific competition during middle school when I had practiced and prepared so extensively. I practiced numerous hours to try to win that competition. During that competition, I had one slip up, which is what prevented me from winning. I felt like I had let down my parents, my piano teacher and myself. I was very disappointed in myself, but that competition didn’t stop me from continuing to play the piano. I realized that I’m not always going to win and that there are other chances in the future for me to continue improving,” Villavert said.

In April of her sophomore year, Villavert auditioned in the American Fine Arts Festival 2014-2015 Season’s competition to perform at Carnegie Hall. After being selected as one of the winners, Villavert flew to New York and performed at Carnegie Hall September of her junior year.

“I’ve been competing a long time before my performance at Carnegie Hall. So it wasn’t too big of a jump from practicing at home because I’ve had so much experience with performing. It’s an honor to be able to play in a venue like that and it’s an opportunity that not many people receive,” Villavert said. “I was nervous but I wasn’t too nervous because I had already won the competition and I had that relief with me when I performed.”

After playing the piano for so many years, Villavert has been trained to accept losses and now applies this perseverance to her daily life. She’s learned to present herself confidently in front of audiences, move on from failures at competitions and continue pursuing her interests despite any challenges.

“The performance gave me the confidence to pursue anything. When I was eight years old, I never would have thought that I would have the opportunity to play at Carnegie Hall,” Villavert said. “Dreams are achievable as long as you work hard and stay determined.”

By Irene Zhou, Opinion editor
Photo courtesy of Katrina Villavert