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  • Writer's pictureAlisa Rao

Evelyn and Ryan Chao on Music, Autism, and the COVID-19 Pandemic

For our first blog post, the Little Virtuosos Project is very excited to highlight two New Jersey sibling-musicians, their musical journeys, and their experience with music on autism and the coronavirus pandemic.

Evelyn Chao (pictured right) is a freshman attending Churchill Junior High School in East Brunswick, New Jersey. Evelyn has played the piano since she was seven and violin since she was eleven. She currently attends Bravura Youth Orchestra for the violin and has made Chamber group for Regional Violin in grades 6-8. She has graduated grade 8 of Piano ABRSM and is currently working on entering the diploma ABRSM exam. Evelyn likes to play volleyball and gymnastics in her free time, as well as cook, bake, hangout with friends, watch YouTube and Twitch.

Ryan Chao (pictured below) is a freshman attending Churchill Junior High School in East Brunswick, New Jersey. He has played piano since he was nine and is currently practicing for the grade 6 ABRSM Piano exam. He also has an interest in train designing and film making. In his free time, he likes to build model railroads in Train Simulator and make his own physical model railroads.

How long have you been playing piano?

E: I’ve been playing piano for over seven years now, ever since I was six. Ryan has been playing the piano for six years.

What inspired you to take up the piano?

E: Our uncle had given us an electric keyboard which we kept in the basement. I think it was while watching an episode of Tom and Jerry with a piano that my brothers and I started playing random notes on the keyboard and trying to learn it. Before we knew it, we bought a real piano and started taking lessons.

What’s your favorite song to play on the piano and why?

E: My favorite song to play on the piano always changes. Before it was Chopin’s Nocturne in C Sharp Minor, for its beautiful sad melody and emotions, and now I have just started Chopin Etude Op 10 No 3, which is a similar piece with one of the most beautiful melodies in the world. I love playing fast songs but slow songs hit me in the heart harder and my love for piano shines brighter.

How does playing music/hearing music make you feel?

E: Hearing beautiful music (or playing it once I practiced it well enough) is one of the best delicacies in is known to change the emotions and thoughts of anyone just listening to it. I love listening to music while exercising, studying, and anywhere I can for the calm, out-of-the-world sensation it brings. Playing music is like being the main character in a movie—you can control the scenes and outcomes through your playing.

From a sibling’s perspective, have you noticed any positive changes from music in Ryan’s behavior, interactions with others, thoughts, etc?

E: Ryan happens to enjoy engineering and computer tech more, however, playing piano has proved to be very good for helping his Autistic behavior. Everyone’s Autism is different, but Ryan’s is quite mellow, and most people can’t even tell he has it. The reason for this may be that piano has taught him how to dedicate time and effort into a long term, everyday project. Music is different from sports and other activities in that every person learns it differently and largely by themselves. He started when he was young, so to grow up with piano for him has helped him learn he can put his mind to something and progress with it. While Ryan is not amazing at the piano, he is pretty good at it. I’ve heard how music operates in a part of a person’s brain apart from words and numbers, and that seems to be true as Ryan learned piano. I think constant persistence in something different from school work has helped Ryan learn time management; how to fix things, and notice problems. Ryan has also said that music helps him feel relaxed.

Has quarantine changes/shaped your perspective on music and music-making?

E: Being stuck in quarantine has changed my perspective on music-making both negatively and positively. Not having any competitions or recitals to prepare for definitely took a toll on my motivation, and at many times, my dad had wanted me to quit my violin (I play both violin and piano) because of my lack of motivation to practice. However, after no less than ten of these quitting-violin conversations, it got old and I realized how important it is that I get back on my music grind. Being at home for so long allowed for much longer practice sessions, which increased my violin learning growth. Having this much time at home was ultimately one big break away from the world for me, and it made me realize what exactly I wanted to pursue and what would be best for me. After deciding to stick with violin and piano, I began to delve deeper into their respective musical worlds, including researching my pieces, studying them, and doing the best I could to bring out the most in each piece. One of the main differences between practicing in quarantine versus normally is how everything’s virtual. This has led to group chamber recordings, which was fun to figure out how to put together separate recordings to make one cohesive piece. This once in a lifetime experience strengthened my musical life and led me to solidify what I’ve learned.

Any words of encouragement from Ryan for those who want to start learning an instrument?

R: If you have a favourite song that is played on the piano, then this is your chance.

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