When he was five years old, his parents feared he was tone-deaf, but today, Tseng Yu-chien is the impressive musician who came out tops at the inaugural Singapore International Violin Competition.
"It's a really funny story," says Tseng, who turns 21 this year and had a screaming fan club cheering him on through the grand final round of the contest, which ended on Jan 21 evening.
The competition is a triennial event that aims to boost the career of one young violinist of any nationality and under the age of 30. It will next be held in 2018.
Tseng, also known as Benny, for those who cannot pronounce his Chinese name, took home the US$50,000 (S$66,000) first prize after performing Sibelius' Violin Concerto In D Minor with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra in the grand final at the Esplanade Concert Hall. He also gets a recording contract with music label Naxos and international engagements with noted orchestras such as the London Philharmonic.
Another Taiwanese, Richard Lin, 23, who is Tseng's friend of 14 years, won the US$25,000 second prize, as well as a US$2,000 Audience Prize for a rendition of Brahms' Violin Concerto In D Major.
Along with third prize winner Sirena Huang, 20, from the United States, the three emerged tops among 35 musicians from 14 countries who were invited here for live competition rounds held from Jan 10. About 150 violinists sent performance tapes for the contest last year, but did not make it past the initial selection.
Tseng's win was a great confidence booster after he failed to make it to the finals of the Indianapolis International Violin Competition in September 2014. "Of course, you get frustrated if you don't advance. I've been through many competitions and so often I don't win," he says.
He still gets nervous before a contest. "It's very challenging, but I can improve a lot through preparing for it. It's a good way for me to test myself. Also, you meet so many good players around the world. It motivates me," he says.
Prizes have spurred him since he was a five-year-old in Taipei earning stickers from his first violin teacher. He was sent to violin classes because in kindergarten, he could not pick up the pitch of the Happy Birthday tune. His teacher informed his parents, who are both teachers and lovers of classical music.
Violin lessons require students to pay attention to intonation and indeed, a few months later, as his father played a piece by Mendelssohn in the car, Tseng identified note after note correctly. "I had perfect pitch. It might have been that my ears started developing at that time or maybe it was the violin."
At age seven, he won a concerto competition held by the Taipei Symphony Orchestra, where he met Lin. Four years later, he took the third prize in the junior division of the much-watched Menuhin Competition, which often identifies rising stars. At age 13, he had a full scholarship to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, the United States, where he still studies with Aaron Rosand and Ida Kavafian.
"My parents really sacrificed to send me there," he says. The biggest cost was personal - a sponsor in Taiwan helped meet costs outside his tuition - but the family had to be separated. His father went with him to the US for a few years, leaving behind Tseng's mother and younger brother.
Tseng now lives by himself, visiting his family often and calling them after every competition round. He has won major prizes, including the Sarasate in 2009 at age 15, the Premio Paganini in 2010, and the fabled Queen Elisabeth Competition in Belgium in 2012, where he took the fifth prize and audience award.
But neither he nor his family boast about his successes.
"Before I go on stage, I try to think that I'm really bad so I'll practise really hard," he says laughing. "As long as you've practised enough, you'll feel less nervous and everything will come out the way you wish."
When he steps on stage, however, all the self-doubt melts away. "Once you're on stage, you have to think that you're the best, you just focus on the music."