Murfreesboro musician Shawn Zheng won "The President's Own" U.S. Marine Band's Concerto Competition for high school students this past February. Image courtesy of U.S. Marine Band Public Affairs.
Classical music may not be to everyone's taste, but for Rutherford County's Shawn Zheng the complex flavor is both satisfying and whets the appetite for more.
The 16-year-old will blow his French horn at Carnegie Hall this summer, having been selected for the Carnegie Hall Youth Orchestra. But he wasn't always so skilled -- his achievements came from hard work, determination and practice.
In seventh grade at Central Magnet, Zheng couldn't even make it through pre-tryouts for Mid-State Band.
"We had to play, I think a scale or two, and I messed up one of the scales. I just couldn't play it. It was really terrifying and embarrassing because I really wanted to try out for Mid-State," said Zheng. "I was determined at that point to practice my scales, practice everything and get better, so I could try out. "
That's exactly what he did. The next year Zheng not only made Mid-State, he was first chair.
"For things like music, when you have one small success, it leads you to want to practice more, which, in turn, makes you better, and then you get more successes and opportunities, which sort of snowballs."
This rings particularly true for Zheng. Playing Carnegie Hall will be one shining achievement on a long list of accomplishments, which includes winning "The President's Own" Marine Band Concerto Competition, being a National YoungArts Foundation finalist and playing Lincoln Center with 18 other students as part of a New York Philharmonic exchange residency with Interlochen Center for the Arts.
The Murfreesboro musician transferred from Central Magnet School to Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan for his junior year.
"I wanted to be surrounded by artists who share a similar drive and passion, and then also a sort of music-centered curriculum."
But boarding school, like most experiences, comes with pros and cons.
"There are definitely things that are different, like living with a roommate, not having a room to myself, going to a cafeteria for every meal," says Zheng. His days are highly structured and musically-oriented, offering the opportunity for rigorous training in his field of choice.
Zheng does miss his mom's cooking, though. Cafeteria food just doesn't taste like home.
"She makes this really good beef and tofu thing. It's hard to describe, but it's, like, spicy and has this good texture." It's one of the things he looks forward to during breaks.
Over the summer he'll spend five weeks of his break with the Carnegie Hall Youth Orchestra.
"This year it's a three week residency at Purchase College in New York, and then after that...we have a concert at Carnegie Hall, and then a two week tour of Latin America," says Zheng.
The travel, he says, is one of his favorite parts of pursuing musical excellence.
"I think it's a good glimpse of what a professional might do in a tour setting."
For now he'll continues to rack up achievements at the high school level, but he hopes to dabble in composing during college, and maybe one day pick up the banjo.
"I think it's really important to develop a good sense of music in general."
Another thing he thinks is really important? Music education.
"I think music education should be something that is part of every kid's life, learning not only how to play an instrument but how to appreciate music, and not for raising SAT scores or raising grades," says Zheng. "That's the argument given by a lot of people right now, to keep funding for music education."
He posits that music should be appreciated for its own sake.
"Music is such an amazing thing, in that it doesn't matter where you come from or who you are. It's sort of this universal language and it can speak to everyone."
It certainly speaks to Zheng.