Young cellist, pianist inspires Placer High students

Zhang will play with Auburn Symphony this weekend
By: Amber Marra, Journal Staff Writer
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As Sarina Zhang settled in and arranged her cello, the murmurs resonating through the class of Placer High School students settled in anticipation.

Then she started playing.

For around five minutes, the advanced band students were captivated by Zhang as she leaned in to her cello, dragging the bow across the strings with the precision of a musician far beyond her 16 years of age.

Upon speaking with the class comprised of students who play wind instruments, Zhang revealed herself to be an average teenager who enjoys hanging out with her friends and the occasional indulgence in Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe" when she isn't spending four hours per day practicing cello and another four practicing piano.

"The first step is to really enjoy what you're doing and have fun," Zhang said.

Zhang is currently double majoring in piano and cello in the pre-college division at Juilliard School in New York. She has played with symphonies everywhere from Dubai to the Czech Republic, from Prague to Amsterdam and Switzerland.

This weekend, she will play with the Auburn Symphony at their Masterworks Series Concert 1 titled "French Fantasy." Zhang will be playing Lalo's cello concerto in D minor.

Peter Jaffe, conductor of the Auburn Symphony, led the class's discussion with Zhang and gave her a flattering introduction.

"You are about to become friendly with an absolute genius," Jaffe said before Zhang began.

She explained to the class that she started playing the piano when she was 4 and picked up the cello when she was 7 after her brother's violin teacher noticed something special about her.

"He saw me reading and thought I was unusually focused on the book and said I should start learning the cello," Zhang said.

After she wowed the Placer High students by playing a piece on the cello by Johann Sebastian Bach, Zhang spoke about how she balances the eight hours per day she spends practicing, schoolwork and socializing with friends.

Zhang is a senior at the California Virtual Academy, so her classes are all online. On the weekends, she attends Juilliard with other students who are her age.

"I live day by day. My schedule isn't set everyday; I do whatever I need to do and prioritize," she explained.

Soon after, the students and Zhang went across the hallway to another room where she took to the grand piano. Zhang fiercely pounded out a transcription of an original piece by Mozart while the students looked on.

Zhang won't be playing the piano at this weekend's performances, but explained to the class that learning to do so makes memorization and learning rhythms easier later in life.

"I really use my ears and muscle memory, but always trusting your hands to do what they need to do can be risky," Zhang said. "You take it apart and memorize it one measure at a time."

Along with memorization tactics, Zhang spoke to the students about practicing and expressing themselves through music when they can.

Some students posed questions to her toward the end of the class. Some asked what her favorite kind of music is and were surprised when she said she enjoys listening to all types, not only classical music.

Other students asked her technical questions about the importance of posture and the difference in notations between wind and string instruments.

Zhang also answered one question that many students her age ask themselves, regardless of their areas of talent or interest: What's next after high school and college? Zhang said she'll try for Julliard or Harvard, but that enjoying her experience will always be important to her.

"Whatever happens, I guess I'll just grab that opportunity," Zhang said. "Music is a lot like speaking. You have to really mean it. It's what makes music expressive."

Contact Amber Marra at Follow her on Twitter @Amber_AJNews.

Who: The Auburn Symphony featuring Sarina Zhang

What: Masterworks Series Concert 1: "French Fantasy"

When: Saturday, Oct. 27, 7:30 p.m.

Sunday, Oct. 28, 3 p.m.

Where: Placer High School Auditorium

Tickets: $45/$40/$30, depending on the section

Student tickets are $20

Tickets available at or (530) 823-6683