“Some people are driven to compete and others aren’t,” says Dr. Pamela Mia Paul, the regents professor of piano at the University of North Texas College of Music, says of graduate student Baolong Zhang. The graduate artist certificate student at the University of North Texas in the College of Music, is driven to compete, and it has changed his life.
“We don’t create new music, we play the great masterpieces,” he says, “but when I play the pieces, I borrow them to explain what I feel. That’s the amazing part that I love.”
Now living in Dallas and attending UNT — the only school in the United States Zhang applied to because he wanted to study under Paul — Zhang received first prize in the 2017 Virginia Waring International Piano Concerto Competition in April.
"He was studying in Hong Kong and worked any kind of job he could to save up money to come to UNT," Paul said when university announced the prize.
Not only did Zhang win the prestigious honor for his performance of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3., but he also earned a $10,000 prize. That money, he says, will enable him to “focus more attention on my piano performing.”
Zhang was born in Panjni, a small town in northern China, in 1987. He began playing the piano at the age of four, and by the age of six he was already showing talent. As a child in China, Zhang was told after a competition that he should move to a bigger city to study piano from professionals, which he did starting in middle school. In 1999 he was accepted to the Shenyang Conservatory of Music, where he studied with the head of the music department.
Then in 2005 Zhang was admitted to both the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing and the Hong Kong Academy for Preforming Arts, where he was later awarded a full scholarship for the master study.
During his undergraduate study, Zhang was the prize winner in both the KAWAI Asia Piano Competition and the TOYAMA International Piano Competition, and he participated in other concerts and master classes with renowned pianists such as Angela Hewitt and Malcolm Bilson. He has also accompanied numerous candidates in several string competitions.
This major win at the Virginia Waring competition will hopefully allow more people to hear the beautiful way in which Zhang interprets the music. “When I first met him, one of the things I absolutely loved about him was that he made such a beautiful sound at the instrument,” Paul says. “It’s far more sophisticated than just moving one’s fingers across the keyboard. He’s got an ear for it and he understands physically how to get different colors of sound. It’s one of the things that makes him stand out.”
Zhang is quick to give Paul credit for his success. By the time he got to UNT, being on stage wasn't new to him, but he says Paul has helped him manage his competition anxiety, “I couldn't have won this prize without my teacher,” Zhang says. “I’ve learned a lot from her, not only about how to play the piano, but also how to prepare for big competitions.”
However, Paul is just as quick to turn the credit right back around, saying that Zhang often practices piano for seven or eight hours a day. “He probably wouldn’t say this about himself, so I’ll say it for him: He is incredibly hard working and incredibly disciplined," she says. "And that’s saying a lot since this is a discipline that requires you to be incredibly hard working and incredibly disciplined.”