Young Pianist's Gift Grates on Ungrateful Ears

By Marc Fisher
Tuesday, September 13, 2005

The neighbors complained again and again about incessant loud noise from Li Tong Yang's apartment in Tysons Corner, and next week, because of the noise, she and her son John must leave. They have nowhere to go.

If you've ever lived near someone who makes a racket at all hours, you're probably cheering for Li's neighbors. I once lived next to a guy who had attached to his side of our common wall an exercise device that would spring heavy weights back against my head each day at 5:15 a.m. I spent every morning dreaming up suitably medieval forms of retribution.

But before raising a glass to the neighbors who forced Li out, listen harder. The noise that generated calls to the Fairfax County police and complaints to building management comes from a Steinway grand piano. The person playing that piano is 12-year-old John Chen, who happens to be, in the estimation of Pamela Sverjensky, head of the Piano Department at the Levine School of Music, "probably the most talented person ever to come to this school," which is saying a great deal.

John plays piano six to eight hours a day. He has a very big sound. He has won some high honors, he's played at Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center, and he is on a track to be someone many of us would pay $75 to hear.

To get where John is in his budding career, a musician requires a parent with a singular purity of devotion. His mother qualifies, big time. "I sacrifice myself," Li says. "I don't really have a life like other people. I don't have 'me time.' I don't have friends. I don't have connections to the outside world."

Facing homelessness in eight days, Li has no one to turn to, no friend ready to take in John and her, let alone the Steinway, which she bought with earnings from her last job.

Li got into this pickle in part because of her absolute dedication to John's music. After arriving here from Beijing in 1995, Li taught herself English by listening to the radio constantly. A Chinese church found her a job cooking and cleaning for a woman in Reston and then for a retired congressman in McLean. Living in his house, Li saved enough to send for her son, who was in China with her parents.

But as John gained notice for his skill, his playing became too much for Li's benefactor, who declined to tell me his side of the story. Last spring, he told Li that she had to go. He rented her a condo in an upscale Tysons development. But neighbors there quickly rebelled against the noise.

"I understand," Li says. "I don't think anyone except a mother could stand the noise. It is very, very loud."

Neighbors called the Post Tysons Corner apartments management. They called the cops. They banged on Li's door. John was practicing this summer in two-hour sessions spaced from about 7 in the morning until 10 at night.

"He doesn't have the life of other kids," his mother says. "He can't afford to have sleepovers or play Game Boy all the time."

John has complained that he wants to be more like other seventh-graders at Cooper Middle School in McLean. But you have a TV and GameCube, Li said.

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