Nadia Azzi, 14, is an extremely accomplished young pianist. She and her mother left their home in Palm Harbor for Nadia to have the chance to attend Julliard’s pre-college program in New York City. Nadia’s father, sister and grandmother remain in Palm Harbor.
PALM HARBOR – In the music world, a common joke is, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice.” For Nadia Azzi, all of her practicing paid off and she made her Carnegie Hall debut at age 11. Now, at 14 years old, she is making her third Carnegie performance on May 19.
This talented teen is a Palm Harbor and Dunedin native and recently won first place in the 2013 Bradshaw & Bruno International Piano Competition. The prestige and chance to play at Carnegie Hall as her prize.
“It’s a big deal to win, and you get to play at Carnegie Hall, and probably some important people come to see it,” Nadia said. “It’s important to get your name known in the music world.”
Even though she has performed there before, it is still a huge deal, and she knows it.
“It’s pretty nerve wracking, and I usually don’t get nervous, but when I play there, I get nervous,” Nadia said. “The acoustics are very, very nice in that hall, and that’s what I like the most about that hall.”
Nadia Azzi played Flight of the Bumble Bee arranged by Rachmaninov as an encore following her performance of Mozart Concerto No. 27 with the Northwest Indiana Symphony on March 8, 2013.
Nadia was born in Dunedin and has played piano since she was 5 years old. She’s fluent in Japanese, a top student, a member of American MENSA, and has won countless awards and top honors for piano – and a few distinctions for violin, as well. And last fall, she and her mom, Kaori, made the difficult decision to move to New York City, leaving behind Nadia’s father, younger sister and grandmother in Palm Harbor.
But after all, Nadia had been accepted into the pre-college division at The Juilliard School as a ninth-grader, and that is an opportunity she had to take. She also was accepted to study with her first-choice teacher, Veda Kaplinsky.
“I get to study with the teacher I and everyone really wants to study with,” Nadia said. Kaplinsky is the chairwoman of the piano department at the Juilliard School
as well as director of the pre-college division. She has performed all over the country, as well as in international competitions, and has taught piano technique, master classes and lectures throughout the U.S., Israel and other countries. Therefore, studying with her is also one of the most exciting things for Nadia about attending Juilliard.
“It’s probably my teacher. It’s really exciting to work with her and all the students,” Nadia said. “They’re all really, really good, and it motivates me to practice more.”
The Juilliard pre-college division is an all-day Saturday program, and students are expected to attend a regular academic school during the week, Kaori said. Nadia was accepted into the joint program at the Professional Performing Arts School, which is located in Times Square. She takes about a half day of academics there and then she and the other Juilliard students are taken to Juilliard to spend at least two periods a day practicing and studying her craft.
“(The school) is known for (former students) Alicia Keys and Britney Spears,” Kaori said. “They all come from that school. And her friends are ballerinas and singers and dancers and they’re actually working. That’s why they call it a professional school. They’re flexible and understanding of the needs of their performance. Otherwise, like many of Nadia’s competitors when she goes to competitions, the other kids that win at the competitions are home schooled. But I can’t. So it was very different when she was in Florida because she was in a regular academic school that had nothing to do with music (specifically) so we were struggling with the absences and the performance needs, and the teachers had to work with her when she got back. It was a very hectic, crazy situation. Now she’s in an environment where the music is supported.”
Before Nadia and Kaori moved to New York City, Nadia attended the Center for Gifted Studies at Dunedin Highland Middle School, where she excelled academically. She continues to take Advanced Placement classes at the Professional Performing Arts School, only now her day is a more fluid mix of academics and music. This makes it easier to both complete her academic studies as well as practice as much as she wants to and needs to in order to win top music competitions. Even with all the practice she gets done at school, she still practices for about four or five hours after she gets home, Kaori said.
The other students who attend both programs are also top notch, and Nadia loves being surrounded by so much talent. It helps keep her focused and striving for the best, although sometimes the immense talent can get stressful.
“(The most difficult thing) is probably keeping up, advancing in my piano playing,” Nadia said. “It seems easy because you’re around really good people, but you can get stressed out and think you’re not good enough, or all your friends are better than you. I think that’s the most difficult thing. … But I’m the type of person who doesn’t really get stressed out at all. I think I handle it pretty well. I try not to think about the other people too much and concentrate on my own advancements.”
The Saturday Juilliard program is for about 10 hours a day, and there are music competitions, performances of all kinds, chamber groups and much more, Kaori said. Studying with the best of the best and balancing both programs has helped Nadia improve even more.
“I think something that improved the most for me is probably my work ethic,” Nadia said. “Before, I used to daydream a lot. I was focused, but it would take more time, but now everyone around me is so focused, so it helps.”
Being a perfectionist, she said it would take a lot of time to do her schoolwork, but she has been able to now do a good job but be quicker about it.
Playing at Carnegie Hall and winning the Bradshow & Bruno competition aren’t Nadia’s only achievements in recent years. She also appeared on NPR’s From the Top program last December, has already performed at the Aspen Music Festival, was the grand prize winner of the 2012 Crescendo Music International Competition, won first place at the Open Junior Piano Category at the 16th Walgreens National Concerto Competition, won first place at the 25th Tampa Bay Symphony Young Artist Competition, won first place at the 2011 New Music National Young Artist Competition in Chicago, won first place in the junior piano category in the 2011 FSMTA State Concerto Competition in Tallahassee, among many other distinctions.
One of her most recent achievements is appearing on the national radio program, WFMT 98.7 in Chicago, which is known as the No. 1 network for classical music in the country, Kaori said.
“She had the exclusive performance live,” Kaori said. “That’s kind of hard to do, even for regular, professional adult performers. She also was invited on Radio Canada International. She won the New Music National Young Artist Competition, too.”
Nadia’s favorite recent achievement, however, was performing a concerto with the professional Northwest Indiana Symphony in March. She said it was amazing to be the soloist with the whole orchestra behind her and the conductor following her.
However, even though Nadia is loving her New York experience and the opportunities it allows her to have, it is hard on both her and her mom to be away from the rest of their family.
“Yes, of course it’s hard,” Nadia said. “I really miss my dad and my sister and my grandma. I can’t wait to see them in June (when they come to visit.) We Skype sometimes, but it’s hard to find some time to do it together. I do call and text my dad a lot. It’s hard.”
It is also difficult for Kaori. She is able to work from home, but her husband, Sal, has a good job in Florida and can’t move.
“It’s very hard, though, because, especially me, I miss my younger one,” Kaori said. “She’s 6. We’ll bring her here in June to see if she likes life in Manhattan. First of all, she has to be happy. The life is so different. (In Florida,) we have a pool, we have a yard, and here it’s just a small apartment. So I’ll try her for a month and see how she will do, and hopefully she will like it and then I will get to keep her.”
Kaori’s youngest daughter, Karina, is doing well and is a social butterfly, she said, and Kaori does the best she can from afar.
“I’m kind of a strict mom, making sure the homework is done, and she seems to be okay with it, but she misses her sister,” Kaori said.
At first, they were going to try to go back to Florida on the weekends, but that became too difficult. Instead, they went back twice around Thanksgiving and Christmas and were able to come back for 10 days in March. But now is the busy music season, between juries and Carnegie Hall, a national competition in June, and performing at the Aspen Music Festival this summer. But the whole family will be together in June, and after that it’s just three more years until Nadia goes off to college.
Right now, Nadia’s dream school is Curtis Institute of Music, but it’s highly competitive, with only a few students accepted each year. But she has some other options, too. Other than that, she just knows she wants to be a professional pianist and play all over the world. Music is a part of her and is her greatest joy.
“It really helps me when I feel sad,” Nadia said. “Practicing the piano and performing – especially performing – makes me feel really good.”