Justin Yu is 11 years old and he plays the cello.
If this conjures moments as a parent trying to tune out practice sessions of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” or “Old MacDonald,” let’s settle that score right now. Yu played Carnegie Hall at age 6.
He is the leader of a string ensemble – actually several, with varying numbers of players who range in age from 8 to 14, and they’ve played on network TV shows, at NBA games, venues large and small and at the White House.
As the Joyous String Ensemble, Yu and six classmates from the Joyous Music School in New York will play at the third WGCU Twisted Strings Music Festival, set for Jan. 26, at Top Rocker Field in Fort Myers. Other bands lined up include Violectric and a popular duo from the first Twisted concert, Moxie Strings.
The Joyous performers are equally proficient playing the Stevie Wonder tune “Isn’t She Lovely” as Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee.” Justin Yu especially enjoys playing – and singing – songs by Michael Jackson. “He’s got swag,” the young cellist says.
Justin, the son of Chinese composer and conductor Ziliang (Julian) Yu and Korean pianist Rho Aera, was 3 years old at his first dance class, says his father. “He was so young, he could not pick up the cello yet. But the dance background would help him move his body, move his hands, when playing an instrument.”
After a subsequent six months of piano lessons and six months on cello, his father – who is director of the Joyous Music School in New York – said he realized Justin was “quite special.”
So is Justin’s sister, Christine, who at 8 years old plays violin and piano.
FGCU 360 talked to the three Yus via Facetime on a recent afternoon.
Justin and Christine remember performing for the Obama White House at the National Christmas tree lighting in December 2015. The lineup that night included Trombone Shorty; Crosby, Stills and Nash; Tori Kelly; Fall Out Boy; and the United States Coast Guard Band.
They met President Obama: “We got to hug him, and he was so tall!” Christine Yu says, smiling and bouncing excitedly on a couch at home. Justin Yu recalls that first dog Bo, a Portuguese water dog, was bigger than he was. And he most vividly remembered getting lost while on tour in the White House, but thankfully not for long.
Along with about 500 other students at Joyous school, Justin and Christine Yu don’t spend their lives practicing. They go to their regular primary schools during the day and practice at lessons after school or on weekends, but at most one to two hours a day, they say.
Julian Yu explains: “We focus on everyone’s ability to learn quickly and by themselves. … I grew up practicing a lot, so I try to have them do the opposite, which is practice less and better.”
This is likely to keep the kids more enthusiastic about their precocious abilities. In fact, Justin Yu knows he wants to be “a cellist and an entertainer” when he grows up.
His sister, though, has other aspirations. “I want to be a lawyer and change the world,” she says. “And I like to draw.”
If you go:
What: The third annual Twisted Strings Music Festival, featuring classically trained musicians on string instruments playing music a variety of styles. Headliner is The Moxie Strings. Also starring Violectric and Joyous String Ensemble.
When: 5 to 9 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 26. Doors open at 4 p.m.
Where: Top Rocker Field, 9510 Thunder Road, Fort Myers
Tickets: $35 general admission for one, or $60 in advance for two; $150 per person VIP (includes VIP parking, catered nibbles, unlimited non-alcoholic drinks and three tickets per person for beer or wine, preferred seating and a chance to meet the bands); $1,350 for a VIP table for 10 (with preceding VIP benefits). For details about VIP benefits, contact Gina Dengler at (239) 590-2328 or [email protected]cu.org or Jennifer Denike at (2390 590-2514 or [email protected].
For details: About the bands, food, tickets, etc., go to twistedstrings.org.