Once the Pride of Shanghai, Pianist Tian Ying Strikes a Chord in the U.s.

updated 05/02/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/02/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Tian Ying doesn't really think of himself as a prodigy. Okay, so he took up piano at 3, never failed to name the pitch when a fork was struck against a glass, and debuted with his hometown orchestra, the Shanghai Symphony, at age 11. "I had very good years as a child," he shrugs. "I heard many people say I was a prodigy, but maybe they were just trying to be nice."

If so, they're getting nicer all the time. Ying, now 19 and a scholarship student at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, has been piling up piano prizes ever since he emigrated to the U.S. from mainland China by himself in 1984. He won the Stravinsky International Piano Competition in 1985 and the Young Keyboard Artists Competition in Ann Arbor, Mich., a year later. His playing leaves audiences enraptured. "Tian is an absolutely magnificent talent," exclaimed conservatory teacher Jacob Maxin upon hearing him for the first time.

Ying's parents, Shengji, a piano teacher, and Komein, a former trumpet soloist with the Shanghai Symphony, would surely agree. They spotted their son's genius early, enrolling him in the Shanghai Conservatory of Music at age 9 and eagerly assenting when he was asked to play in the 1979 film From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China. When Ying decided to go to America for more training, his parents gave their blessings. "I should have been scared of leaving home—I was only 14," he remembers. "But I wasn't."

Perhaps he knew how well he'd fit in. Tian spends off-hours in the Beacon Hill studio apartment that Boston TV anchorman Christopher Lydon lets him use for free. He has a weakness for television—"the junk stuff"—and for tunes by Belinda Carlisle. So into America is he, in fact, that he has not returned to China once. "I don't even know who the premier is now," he admits. But he never loses sight of what he first discovered back home. "I was born with a gift," he says. "I want to be someone that people love and remember."

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