(Johann) Sebastian Chang

Photo by Jeanne RiceThe cynics who run the business side of music generally say there's no such thing as an undiscovered genius. What they mean is this: the music community is so tight—with its network of teachers, players, agents and all—that the word gets out fast on real talent.

The word is out on Sebastian Chang. He started playing piano at age four, began composing at five, and wrote a small piano concerto when he was eight that was performed by the Tokyo Symphony the following year at a UNICEF conference. His music has been performed locally by the Pacific Symphony as well as in various locales around the U.S., Canada and Asia. Last spring, he played his own works on the nationally syndicated radio show From the Top. American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers honored him early this year with its Morton Gould Young Composers Award, and he just received his first commission for an orchestra piece from the St. Paul/Minneapolis Youth Symphonies. Not bad for a 13-year-old.

Barely a teenager, Sebastian is very possibly Trabuco Canyon's greatest composer. But the people close to him are sure he has bigger worlds to conquer as his composing style evolves.

“His music has developed over the years,” says Chris Russell, head of instrumental music at the Orange County High School of the Arts in Santa Ana, where Sebastian is a student. “Mainly, he's propelling forward through music history styles. He started off sounding like Mozart and Haydn when he was eight, then wrote a violin and piano piece a few years ago that sounds like Dvorak, and his latest is more in the Shostakovich-Prokofiev vein.”

Sebastian learned to compose from his first piano teacher, who encouraged her young students to write down their own musical ideas. “I sort of eased my way into composition,” he recalls. “It wasn't either hard or slow; I found it very enjoyable.”

Different composers create music in different ways. Some can invent and hear complex strands of fully formed, interwoven melodies in their minds' inner ear and commit it directly to paper. Others noodle around at a keyboard, hunting for the right combination of notes to create a theme. Many carry a notebook wherever they go and jot down snippets of ideas that could hit them at any moment.

“It's a mixture of all those things,” says Sebastian, who doesn't usually allow himself the liberty of “listening” idly to invented music in his head. “Every time I get an idea, I frantically try to write it down, or I end up forgetting it. The thing that's important is having ideas flow smoothly from the brain to the paper. It's always great when you have lots of inspiration to write down something. Sometimes that doesn't quite happen, but when it does, it's a very fun experience.”

Both Sebastian and his 11-year-old sister, Averee, play piano, violin and clarinet. In addition, he plays and composes music for electric organ. Neither their father, K.C., a structural engineer, nor their mother, Kee, plays a musical instrument, and it's just an accident that their composer son has an apropos name (think Johann Sebastian Bach).

But both parents recognized their kids' interest in music at an early age. “He had a very good ear,” says Kee. “Even before Sebastian was four, he would go up to the piano and play something he heard on the radio. I was very impressed, and I thought, 'Oh, he likes that!' So I started to look for a teacher to give him lessons.”

Illustration by Mark Dancey

For his part, Sebastian listens to music in different styles ranging from classical to rock and folk music—”a lot of Chinese music. You can't stay focused in the classical music world for too long or you become musically ignorant,” he says. “Even though you may know every single piece of repertoire from the classical genre, you have to constantly broaden your horizons in all types of music.”

These days, it's an odd calling to want to be a classical composer. Only a small fraction of the general population listens to classical music, and just a puny subset of that group wants its composers alive. The composers themselves work like trolls for years to earn doctoral degrees for the sake of hearing one or two minutes of polite applause—if they're lucky enough to have their music performed at all.

But Sebastian already knows something about the heady rush composers feel when they hear their music brought to life in a concert. “It's a real joy to hear one's music performed by an orchestra because you can see all these people that are playing your own composition,” he says. “It's always a lot of fun to hear that.”

There's no doubt in Sebastian's mind where his future lies, and his parents are behind him 100 percent—a good thing when you consider how expensive it is to follow your globetrotting teenager to music gigs around the world. But they know he's going to make it in that world. “I know that my life will be directly connected with music when I grow up,” Sebastian says with the assurance of someone who knows the pitfalls ahead. “I've always enjoyed composition, with all its ups and downs. Composition is a great process to go through. I do think I'll be heading in that direction.”

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