Amy Sze can’t remember a time when she didn’t play the violin.
Her earliest memory is of her parents giving her a violin when she was 3 years old after they found her “conducting” orchestras in front of the TV.
“I was just so excited because it was like a prized possession for me — it was something really new,” the shy 15-year-old Pismo Beach girl said while clutching her pink violin case outside a practice room at San Luis Obispo United Methodist Church.
She had just wrapped up an hourlong session with local accompanist Paul Woodring, rehearsing the pieces she would perform at the Stradivarius International Violin Competition — an exclusive annual competition featuring teenage violinists from around the world.
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Sometimes, when you listen to yourself playing, sometimes I can’t believe it is even happening.
Amy Sze, Pismo Beach
Sze is set to face off against the 14 other violinists this week in Salt Lake City, capping months of preparation. Of the competitors, she is the only one from California — most of the other violinists hail from China or the eastern United States, notably Chicago.
“I just feel really lucky to be able to go and have the opportunity to participate,” Sze said.
The competition requires applicants to send in videos of themselves playing a selection of pieces they know by heart. For Sze, that includes two concertos by Bach, Beethoven’s “Spring” sonata (also known as his Violin Sonata No. 5) and “Tzigane” by French composer Maurice Ravel.
For the latter two pieces, Sze said she was inspired to learn them after hearing them performed.
“I just thought, ‘oh, I have to play it!’ ” she said. “They were so beautiful.”
From the audition videos, the judges selected a small group of musicians who would fly to Salt Lake City and compete for the $7,500 grand prize, as well as the opportunity to appear with the Utah Symphony and the China Hunan Symphony Orchestra. Runners-up receive $5,000, $3,000, $2,000 and $1,000 prizes, respectively.
Sze, who has played with the San Luis Obispo Youth Symphony, Santa Maria Philharmonic, Palisades Symphony, Antelope Valley Symphony and the Montecito International Music Festival Chamber Orchestra, said she is just looking forward to the experience of the competition, rather than expecting to win.
“I’m really excited to meet a lot of talented people and listen to them and be inspired,” she said. “I think that’s the main reason I’m going — to be inspired by the playing, not necessarily to win anything.”
But during her practice the week before the competition, it was clear Sze was preparing to fight for one of those prizes. She carefully listened to critiques and suggestions from Woodring, grinning when she successfully managed to play a more difficult part and furrowing her brow when a note didn’t come out just right.
At the end of the practice, she even pulled out a well-worn book of sheet music and asked Woodring to go through the intricate “Tzigane” — to the casual observer it looked like a jumble of ink blobs and smudges taking over the white page — and then attacked the piece with gleeful precision.
Sze’s passion for her music was clear on her face as she played that day on a loaned Matthieu Devuyst violin and Michael Yeats bow. (She normally plays an instrument her family purchased for $100 off eBay.) Later, Sze echoed in words what her face had already said.
“Sometimes, when you listen to yourself playing, sometimes I can’t believe it is even happening,” she said. “Music has been something that is always really important to me. It’s the best feeling in the world.”