There’s no air of superiority when talking with 13-year-old piano prodigy Coco Ma.
She’s passed the Royal Conservatory’s second highest test for the piano, known as the ARCT, and she’s candid about her dislike of metronomes as she sits inside a small classroom, a Kawai grand piano looming behind her.
The Leaside native and St. Andrew’s Junior High School student is like any other teenage girl: likes reading, enjoys swimming and breathlessly watches Johnny Depp films. And she enjoys spending time with mom Jenny and dad Jimmy, who smile as she talks music.
But there’s no mention that she was one of only 12 children in the world to be selected to participate in the first-ever junior band camp through the Lang Lang International Foundation.
That is until she’s motivated, and the student of the Royal Conservatory’s Phil and Eli Taylor Performance Academy for Young Artists obliges, a smile taking shape on her face.
“Like a normal kid, I was on Facebook and I was on Lang Lang’s page, and I saw this one post that he did for his first junior music camp for the Lang Lang Foundation,” she says. “I was like, ‘This is cool’, so I clicked on the link and it took me to an application.”
Lang Lang is a renowned Chinese pianist, and one of Coco’s sources of inspiration.
More than 350 youngsters were vying for a finalist spot at his inaugural camp.
Coco secured her position as the only Canadian, earning a trip to Munich, Germany, Nov. 3–8.
“It was one of the best weeks of my life, honestly, because I met a lot of kids around my age, from 9 to 14,” she beams. “They all had similar experiences to me but they also had very unique things.
“We have these really strong bonds even though we met for less than a week.”
While there Coco flexed her musical muscles, performing at city schools, but she’s modest about her talents, which seem to follow a path similar to that of legendary Canadian pianist Glenn Gould.
Her parents purchased a toy keyboard for her when she was 1, and she took to it immediately.
“They took a video of me playing. It’s really fun for me to watch because it’s just me playing with this plastic keyboard,” she says, with a laugh. “Basically what happened, because I liked playing, for Christmas I asked for a piano and they bought me one, and I’ve been playing ever since.”
She was 5 when enrolled at the Conservatory, and since that age Coco has performed at Carnegie Hall in New York, and twice won the Canadian Music Competition, in 2009 and 2011.
Mom, Jenny, says it’s been a pleasant surprise.
“We just wanted her to play some music for us, one day — we’d be happy with that,” she says, her eyes fixed proudly on her daughter.
“But she progressed really fast, and after six months (of classes) she had already done her Grade 3 exam.”
Coco says her influences include her teachers Arshalouise Nersessian and James Anagnoson, as well as pianists Yuja Wang, Martha Argerich, Maria-João Pires and Gabriela Montero.
“I really love listening to Gabriela Montero, especially her improvisations,” she says, motioning with her hands. “I love improvising.
“I can’t say I’m excellent at it, but she’s so good. It’s just mind-blowing how she can just think of these motifs and build on them.”
Most of all she credits Leaside with being a nurturing environment.
“It’s just the community I’ve lived in, Leaside, it’s such a great place to be in to chase your dreams,” she says. ”It’s very safe. The people are very kind, and when you show them — there are some people in the world where you show them what you can do, and they don’t really care — in Leaside they’re really encouraging.
“I’m thankful for whatever divine force gave me this gift.”