A Santa Monica transplant by way of China is doing what she was destined nearly from birth to do — play piano and play it well.
Sabrina Xiao He is a piano-playing prodigy, having held over 300 solo piano recitals and international chamber concerts at venues including Carnegie Hall Symphony Space, McCallum Theatre, Alfred Newman Hall, Guangdong Performing Arts Theater (China) and the Gijon Municipal Concert Hall (Spain), her first at 7-years-old.
She is the winner of the 2010 MTAC Piano Concerto Competition, Third Place at the 2015 International Music Competition Paris, Prize winner of 2017 Waring International Piano Competition, First Prize winner of the 2019 Golden Classical Music Awards International Competition and Second Place at the 2019 Steinway Academy Piano Competition.
Santa Monica audiences may know her as the principal pianist for the Silicon Beach Arts Council, where she recently performed at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church on Lincoln. He is set to soon release a piano album and continue performances in Santa Monica and abroad but before she does, she reflects on her life.
“It’s a fun story, I guess, now that I think about it,” Dr. He said with a laugh in a phone call with the Daily Press. “All I ever wanted to do was nurture my love of music.”
The way He tells it, she was nearly pre-destined to play the piano.
Per Chinese tradition (Zhuazhou, for those curious), five items are placed before a baby on their first birthday, with the first item the baby grabs indicating the child’s future. Items can range from spoons and ladles (indicating a culinary future), a Chinese brush pen (signifying the arts) to an abacus (accounting).
He’s assortment consisted of a book, a pen, a painting, a calculator and an electronic keyboard. Of course, He chose the electronic keyboard.
Despite fate taking He by the hand and leading her to her predetermined life’s work, He’s father had some reservations.
“[My father] is a piano teacher and educator,” He said, noting that her father, Kaicai He, is an accomplished pianist, cellist, composer and music educator. “He thought, for a one-year-old girl, her hands aren’t ready for a keyboard. He didn’t want me to treat the piano as a toy.”
For the next three years, He would hear the classical notes of her father’s piano fill the house. “It was a wonderful sound,” He recalls, “but he pushed me away. He wanted me to stay curious.”
At 4, she got her wish. Her father provided lessons for her and by the age of 13, He was accepted into the prestigious Sichuan Conservatory of Music in China. She received strict training under Daxin Zheng, who praised her as “a student with extraordinary musical sensibility.”
In the next six years, she performed in various large concert halls all over China and won honorary titles and numerous awards in both local and national piano competitions in China.
After He completed her studies at the Sichuan Conservatory of Music, she yearned to head West to the U.S. to further her music education.
“Piano is a Western instrument,” He said. “I thought, I need to study here to pursue curriculum here. Not only because the root of the piano is Western. I wanted to study Western cultural aesthetics. I believed there was an innovative way to present classical music in an interesting way, combining performance, art and music.”
He’s piano performances eventually caught the attention of Sharon Mann, the piano professor at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, who honored He with a scholarship.
She earned her Bachelor’s degree in piano performance in San Francisco and moved on to the Cleveland Institute of Music where she got her Master’s degree, under the tutelage of Prof. Paul Schenly and Prof. Daniel Shapiro. Paul Schenly commented “Her performance stands out because of her sincerity, warmth and intelligence, in addition to her virtuoso technical skills.”
At these music conservatories, He was able to explore different aspects of classical music and even involved herself in dance and visual art to fully integrate herself in other art forms she could one day marry with music.
Eventually, she made her way to Los Angeles to attend USC, He obtained her Doctor of Musical Arts Degree in Piano Performance at the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music, working with renowned pianist, educator and Beethoven expert, Prof. Stewart Gordon, where she was a full-scholarship recipient and teaching assistant during her studies.
“I continued to study and perform classical music but on the side, I got to experience how to present classical music in a different way,” He said.
The last year of her doctorate program, He premiered an experimental piano drama called, ‘Dream’. In the performance, she told a story loosely based on her own life, experiencing love and loss. Piano performances carried the emotions of the piece while a cello performance and dancers aided the narrative.
“I always wanted to present Chinese music and Classical music together in a novel form,” He said of ‘Dream’.
“My background from China is cultural, but I learned the most in America. I got a lot of inspiration from visual arts in this country; I was inspired by choreography and the aesthetics of America. So, I wanted to bring magnificent Chinese music to America, make something unique for Chinese and Americans. A cultural exchange. That’s why I’m here.”
In her time in America, He has accomplished many things — albums, solo piano tours, performing the Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto with the Thousand Oaks Symphony Orchestra, playing a leading role in the McCallum Theater’s presentation of The Planets, giving series of piano concerts for the Virginia Waring International Piano Competition,working with legends in the field and befriending a Grammy-Award-winning producer (“Sabrina is, without a doubt, one of the top musicians in her field; Her talent is very uncommon and would continue to be treasured in the U.S. music industry,” Michael Rolland Davis, CEO and founder of Ivory Classics said), yet her career goals still remain grounded. In the fall of 2019, Ivory Classics will release a new CD of her recordings combining Chinese and classical music.
When asked what she’s looking forward to in her career after conquering so much, He is focused on the little things that bring her joy. Making classical music more accessible — especially for younger generations — nurturing her love of music and of course, crowd reaction.
“I played a concert, a solo recital in Santa Monica back in March,” He began. “The thing I love about Santa Monica is the audience is so involved. After I performed, a lot of audience members gathered to ask questions. They asked about technique, how to present pieces, how to imitate the sound of Chinese instruments. I spent about half an hour talking to them. I want more of that. There’s a unique opportunity here to reach out to audiences and exchange musical ideas.”