Simon Su: Being a teenage piano prodigy is a full-time gig


If you were to pass him on the street, Simon Su would come off as a prototypical 17-year-old.

He says he works out a couple of times a week, but you’d be hard pressed to notice. Loose, inky clothing hangs over his frame. The only color in his wardrobe comes from a pair of spongy Nike tennis shoes with subdued, key lime flares.

When he talks, his English is warped by an accent flavored with the harsh wisps of Chinese, but the content of his speech is riddled with the sarcasm and angst unique, and perhaps exclusive to, the 17-year-old psyche.

“I’m 75,” Su, whose birth name is Zicong, quips with a reticent grin when asked how old he turned on his birthday, Jan. 21.

He loves Jason’s Thai and gets fidgety when surrounded by adults — pretty normal traits of a junior in high school.

But upon learning more about the boy beneath the diminutive demeanor, it’s clear that words like “normal” and “prototypical” aren’t fair descriptors for Su. Normal kids don’t practice a skill 39 hours a week on top of attending school. And prototypical teenagers can’t play some of the most complex piano pieces ever written by memory.

Su does, and he can.

Su, who moved to Aurora two years ago from Guangxi Province, China to pursue his studies and further his musical career, comes as close to fulfilling the definition of “prodigy” as it gets. He’s played piano since he was 4 years old and boasts a list of accolades that would be impressive for someone three or four times his age, never mind a kid who can’t legally buy a pack of cigarettes.

Su’s paunchiest recent accomplishments include an invitation to play with the Colorado Symphony last fall, several blue ribbons he won at piano competitions across China, and in 2014, a coveted invitation to study under Dr. Larry Graham, an esteemed professor and instructor at the University of Colorado in Boulder. A former student of Graham’s is from Su’s hometown in China and referred the wunderkind to the local instructor.

Every aspect of Su’s life has been tailored to hone his skills on the piano. Principally, he’s enrolled at Accelerated Schools, a private institution for gifted and talented students in Denver where he’s able to spend much of his time practicing and perfecting pieces by Frederic Chopin, Felix Mendelssohn and select other composers.

“Approximately 39 hours per week, usually five hours per day and on Sunday I can practice more,” Su says of his typical practice schedule.

When he’s not at the specialized school in Denver’s Observatory Park neighborhood, he’s often hammering away on one of the two pianos at his home stay at East Evans Avenue and I-225 in Aurora. One of his current host parents is an ESL teacher at Accelerated Schools.

“I wanted to pair him with someone who was musically inclined and having a piano was a requirement,” said Marianna Bagge, a director of community outreach and recruitment at Accelerated Schools.

But Su has gained another set of figurative parents during his time in the States outside of Accelerated Schools. Over the course of the past two years, Su has gotten close with Jimmy and Linda Yip, a pair of Aurora residents actively involved in the local music scene and Chinese community.

“Simon needed a set of Chinese parents and … Linda and Jimmy are it,” Bagge said

Su hasn’t seen his birth parents since he flew home to China for a vacation last summer.

The Yips were connected to the local wunderkind through Bagge, who met the Yips when their son, Nathan, attended the school for a short stint more than 15 years ago. Nathan, was also an accomplished pianist, was killed in a car accident at age 19 in 2002.

“We’re so lucky to know him,” Linda said of her and her husband’s relationship with Su.

The bond that has formed between Su and the Yips will be on full display this weekend when Su takes the stage as the featured entertainment during the Nathan Yip Foundation’s 14th Annual Chinese New Year Gala on Jan. 30. The event typically nets around $300,000 for the Nathan Yip Foundation, which provides funding for orphanages and schools around the world, including seven schools in China. Locally, the organization provides funding for the Asian Pacific Development Center in Aurora as well as several other educational nonprofits across the Front Range.

“Each year our event celebrates the children,” Jimmy said in a statement. “We are happy to showcase Simon’s talent.”

The gala will provide Su with another opportunity to practice playing under bright lights and big pressure, which is what he will have to do next spring when he auditions for several of the most prestigious music schools in the country, including The Juilliard School, Eastman School of Music, Curtis Institute of Music and New England Conservatory of Music.

“The process is very intense,” Bagge said. “It’s typically a three-week period of auditions where they have a juried group of people who give him points, and he sends in CDs beforehand. Juilliard, for example, has thousands of kids apply, 150 get invited to come and play, then they eliminate the majority and leave maybe 10 applicants. With Curtis it’s even less than that. They take anywhere from four to six students each year, if they take any.”

In the meantime, Su said that he’s excited to play at the gala, but not necessarily looking forward to the other, relatively lackluster celebrations in honor of the upcoming Chinese New Year here in the United States. In China, he got the day off from school and was able to celebrate with friends. Here, the celebrations are marked by a few orange slices and, like so many other days, a few hours of practice.

“I’m excited, but more nervous,” he said of the upcoming performance. “You never know what’s going to happen the next time you play a piece.”