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As an 8-year-old, David Zhao was asked to describe the feeling he got from listening to and playing classical music on the piano. At the time, he had a love for candy and said the experience was as sweet as “a box of chocolates.”

“I still feel the same way today,” Zhao, now a junior at Lakeside School, said. “It just brings me to this kind of ephemeral state of mind, where all the stresses of daily life, all the academics, all that stuff goes away when you play piano. That’s really what keeps me going.”

At the age of 15, Zhao has grasped many different art forms. He dabbles in photography, graphic design and coding, but nothing moves him quite the way classical music and playing the piano does.

Zhao wants to share that love for music, and particularly classical music, with the world. He said his passion for the genre was sparked by his parents.

“Even when I was really young, they would always play classical music in the car,” he said. “That was really the only thing that would calm me down.”

He started to learn piano when he was 5, and practices up to two hours each day to stay fresh for piano competitions — at which he might perform in front of as many as 2,500 people. He was one of seven young musicians chosen in 2011 to play in the annual Ten Grands concert at Benaroya Hall, after being named a winner in the KING FM Young Artist Competition. He was a second-place winner in his age group in the 2014 Washington State Music Teachers Association Scholarship Competition (Eastside Chapter), where he was among the “most outstanding performers” in grades 10-12.

“I don’t really pay attention to my surroundings when I play piano,” he said, of playing in front of an audience. “I start to get more in tune. I start to feel the phrasing of the music itself. It’s a very emotional experience to go up there and play.”


Sharing the music goes beyond playing it for listeners. Zhao wants to use music as a way to help others.

In 2013, he and a group of friends and fellow pianists founded Instruments for Change (IFC), an organization that raises money through concerts and galas. IFC is now a registered nonprofit foundation.

The group features 38 high-school musicians, and continues to grow.

“There’s just so many talented musicians, that we definitely felt it could make an impact on the community if we made an organization that could harness our collective musical ability,” Zhao said.

The group has played a couple of benefits for Oso mudslide victims and has presented performances such as Musical Milieu, where listeners were invited to “indulge in the emotional developments of the past four centuries,” and Chopin & Company: An Afternoon Salon.

Billy Wu, an IFC member and former rival of Zhao’s in competitions, said the group is beneficial in exposing others to classical music.

“Most of the teens around in our community in high schools are not really excited about the genre,” he said. “So we try to keep it alive and at least let them appreciate what classical music is.”

In exposing people to the genre, the group hopes to go one step further by helping provide music education to students who need it.

Studies show that, while most elementary schools in the country have some type of music education, less of it is provided in schools in economically disadvantaged areas.

Zhao said it’s important that kids have access to music education and the benefits that come with it, including an improvement in reasoning skills.

“Music definitely shapes you in ways that, sometimes you don’t realize,” Zhao said.

For Zhao, music has shaped him into a person who pairs a love for art with a desire to help others. People around him have taken notice.

“David is a wonderful human being and great student,” said Sasha Starcevich, Zhao’s piano instructor. “I feel lucky to be a part of his life.”

Zhao’s life is a juggling act, as he balances school, a nonprofit organization and piano, on top of relaying to others everything awesome about classical music. Whenever homework needs to be done, he’ll push through to the sounds of Mozart and Bach — music that still calms him, like those old car rides when he was young.

LaVendrick Smith: on Twitter @The_Vendrick.