KITCHENER — Haochen Zhang's introduction to piano as a tot was more about developing his brain than his musical skills.
"My mom was reading a little article in Reader's Digest about how piano was one of the best ways to raise a baby's intellect," said the Shanghai-born Zhang, winner of the prestigious Van Cliburn International Piano competition in 2009.
The 23-year-old Chinese pianist will perform Zhang Plays Rachmaninoff this weekend with the Kitchener Waterloo Symphony in his Canadian solo debut.
"China had the one child policy and until now, this generation was the parents' only hope so intelligence was a big issue," said Zhang in a phone interview from his home in Philadelphia. The piano, he said, trains the brain as well as both hands equally.
"When I first saw it, I thought the piano was a big toy," he said. "I enjoyed piano from the start and I learned so much faster than the other kids."
His mother, a computer engineer with a steel company, found a small piano for her then three-year-old son and gave him music books for guidance.
"After three weeks, my mom took me to a music teacher," he said. "She was young and quite daring."
The teacher was convinced she had a prodigy on her hands because when Zhang was only four, she suggested setting up his first professional piano recital.
His mother's employer happened to offer arts sponsorships and little Zhang was booked to perform at "the biggest hall in Shanghai. It sits 1,300 people. It was quite unbelievable for a five-year-old to do a 70-minute program," he said.
Perhaps being only five helped because to Zhang it was just fun and he seemed to lack the stage fright an older child might experience.
"I brought my toys to play with back stage," he said. "I didn't think it was a big deal. That was the event that got me more serious about piano."
Zhang said his parents, especially his mother, supported him in his choice but never pushed.
From age nine to 10, he attended the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, then spent four years at the Shenzen Arts School starting at 11 years old. By the time he was 15, Zhang was ready for more advanced training and after a lot of research on various American music schools, he decided on a school favoured by many Asian students, the highly selective Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
Zhang found it difficult to begin his studies in a language he was only familiar with in conversation, so he used a yellow marker to highlight words he didn't understand. When he looked at the page, he realized it was mostly yellow.
"It was overwhelming," he said. "But I appreciated that experience."
The young pianist's mother was able to stay with him for the first semester, but problems with her visa meant she couldn't return. Her 15-year-old son was on his own, living in a small Philadelphia apartment where rats were nightly visitors.
"I had to learn to cook. I had to take care of myself," he recalled. And he had to attend a high school to finish his credits while studying music at Curtis.
After a few months, Zhang found a rhythm in his life and everything came much easier until the next big hiccup, this one more positive.
In 2009 he became the youngest and the first Chinese pianist to receive the prestigious gold medal at the Van Cliburn Piano Competition, when he was barely old enough to enter the competition.
"I tried not to have an attitude, just not think about any results," he said. "That helped me psychologically. Less pressure." And when his name was called as the winner, he felt rather numb. "I didn't know what to think," he said. "I remember walking off stage. My mom was there. She was cheering."
After winning the competition, Zhang was launched on a three-year national and international tour, even though he was not yet finished his studies at Curtis. The school offered an option: given the work he'd done, he could graduate with a piano performance diploma instead of a degree.
He chose instead to continue his education through independent studies while launching a busy touring career and now admits he's "glad that part is over."
Since then, the young pianist performed with symphonies in the U.S. as well as Europe, Israel, Japan and China where he spent a year as artist-in-residence with the Shanghai Symphony. In June, he will tour China with the Sydney Symphony.
Though he was in Canada several years ago as a student, performing in an orchestra as part of a cultural exchange, this weekend will mark his Canadian debut as a soloist.
"Performing has always been my greatest inspiration," he said. "Out of performing, teaching or conducting, performing is the best."