Just 13, but already a piano pro

Ian B. Murphy

When George Li sits on his couch, he’s like any other 13-year-old — he fidgets, slouches, and talks about his dislike of school tests and his love of the Red Sox, especially David “Big Papi” Ortiz.

But when he sits on the piano bench, the 13-year-old is unlike almost anyone else in the world, let alone Lexington.

When his small fingers hit the ivory keys of the Steinway & Sons piano in his living room, Li transforms. He is George the Virtuoso. He moves as if casting a spell over a cauldron, pulling the music from his instrument. His eyes roll back; he barely looks at the keys.

With his mouth agape, his feet barely touching the pedals, Li blitzes through “La Campanella” by Franz Liszt. He finishes the frenetic piece with a flourish, turns, and smiles ear to ear. He’s still a kid, and it’s clear he’s having fun.

“For me, the piano is like a black box,” Li said. “Whatever I put in, that’s how it comes back. When I’m happy, it comes out happy. When I want to sing, it comes out singing. When I’m bored, it comes out boring.”

Li moved to Lexington in 2006 from North Andover, and for the last two school years was a student at Clarke Middle School. This year he’s home-schooled so he can play concerts and practice more often.

Li misses his friends, who he doesn’t get to see as much, but the food is better at home.

“I’m planning to visit [my friends] next week,” he said. “I really miss them, and my teachers too.”

Li’s parents, Katie and Jian, said that the Lexington school system, his teachers at Clarke, and the principal have been cooperative.

“Without them, we wouldn’t be able to do anything,” said Katie Li. “They’ve been very flexible and helpful. We feel greatly in debt to the Lexington school system.”

Li has been playing piano since he was 4 1/2 years old; his sister Heidi, now 21, plays and he remembers dropping everything to listen and watch her at the piano when he was younger.

He practices four or five hours during school days; longer on weekends and vacation days. He takes classes at the New England Conservatory in Boston; his favorites this semester are chamber music and interpretive music theory.

“Music theory is great because this year it’s about interpretation, and … it’s about what you think the music is about, and your idea about the piece,” said Li.

Li’s parents don’t play instruments, but they love classical music and introduced it to their children at an early age.

Both came to America from the Guangdong province in China, but met in the United States.

“Where we grew up, there was no piano in the whole city,” said Jian Li. “We only saw the piano in movies.”

Li and his parents credit his piano teacher, Wha Kyung Byun of Lexington, for pushing him, but also believing in him and inspiring him.

“He’s a really rare bird,” Byun said. “There are many people who are talented. But he has a very unusual form for young people to have. He’s extremely talented.” 

Li performed with the Boston Philharmonic Saturday in Worcester. He played Saint-Saens’ “Concerto No. 2,” a very technical and difficult piece, for which he received rave reviews.

Saturday, Li will play with the Brooklyn Philharmonic in Brooklyn, N.Y. at the 18th annual interfaith concert of remembrance for the Holocaust. He will play Felix Mendelssohn’s “Serenade and Allegro Giojoso.”

Through all the hard work to get where he is, Li said one thing has given him the success he has met so far.

“I have a great family who supports me through everything,” he said.

The Lexington Minuteman