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Nicole Chang has been playing the piano since age six and has won more than 20 competitions. She says she owes everything to her mother, who gave her the gift of music. Photo courtesy of Nicole Chang
Nicole Chang was overjoyed when word came last month that she'd placed third in the American Protégé International Concerto Competition. Why the elation over this? After all, the 16-year-old Park City piano phenom has won numerous competitions across the country in the last five years.

"This one was different," explains Chang, a sophomore at Park City High School. "There were competitors from all over the world, including Russia and China." Chang submitted a DVD of her playing the "Hungarian Fantasy" by Franz Liszt to this prestigious competition in New York.

There's a touch of delayed gratification to the story. Chang's "award" for third place will be the opportunity to perform in concert with the other winners at a recital in New York's famed Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall next November during Thanksgiving weekend. The recital will place her center stage among other young international musicians.

Chang began playing the piano at age six. She's quick to credit her mother for her success and love for music. "I owe everything to my mom," she says. "As a child, she didn't have the opportunity to play the piano, so she wanted to give that gift to me."

Her talent was instantly apparent. Her mother, Wendy Kuo, was soon driving her from one teacher to another. She was competing by age nine and winning state competitions by age eleven. Every Sunday, her mother drives her to Logan, where she takes a two-hour lesson at Utah State University. Chang studies with Professor Gary Amano, a graduate of New York City's Juilliard School and the piano director of the Utah State University Music Department. She also studies piano theory with Dr. Brian Stanley.

"Music has always been my passion," she says. "I can't think back to a time when the piano didn't play a huge part in my life. Most of my childhood memories are of practicing, competing and performing."

Born in Park City, Chang attended Challenger School and Rowland Hall in the Salt Lake Valley from preschool through sixth grade.

"I decided I wanted to learn more about the town I lived in, so I transferred to the Park City School District in seventh grade. It was one of the best decisions I've ever made. My teachers, friends, and mentors inspire me with their hard work and determination. Park City is a very special town filled with people that love and care for this community," she says.

Chang maintains a 4.0 grade-point average while taking advanced placement and honors courses. She was student body president last year at Treasure Mountain Junior High. She received the 2012 Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Award and was the tenth grade winner of the 2013 Utah Office of Education Martin Luther King Jr. essay contest. She is active in the community as well, volunteering regularly at the People's Health Clinic.

"Nicole has the unique ability to balance her music with academic achievement and community service," said Principal Bob O'Connor. "I've known Nicole for three years and I've never seen her without a smile at school."

Balancing her music with school and her personal life isn't always easy, says Chang, who is an avid skier and often works at her mother's restaurant, Szechwan Chinese Kitchen at Kimball Junction. "Sometimes homework has to come first, but I still try to play every day," she says. She usually practices about two hours on school nights and more on weekends.

"The most challenging part about music is how personal it is," she says. "Not everything you play will appeal to everyone. Many people have a certain preference for how they want things to sound. Competitions can really bring you down if you let them. Everyone who goes to a competition works extremely hard to get there, but only a few are recognized. I look up to those who can accept that music is challenging and still continue to do what they love."

The American Protégé wasn't the only competition for Chang last month. She won first place in the Utah Music Teachers' Association Concerto Competition and performed at Temple Square's Assembly Hall on Feb. 20. She was also recently named junior category winner of the Oquirrh Mountain Symphony Concerto Competition and will play in its Spotlight Spectacular Concert on May 11. At Carnegie Hall next November, she'll perform the "Hungarian Rhapsody #4," by Franz Liszt.

Chang will soon come to a crossroad. "My goal was to become a doctor ever since I was five years old," she confesses. "Even though this is the career I've always wanted, the piano will be a part of me for the rest of my life." She credits her friends, family, and teachers for their continued love and support.

Steve Phillips is a Park City-based writer and actor. Send your profile comments and suggestions to him at stevep2631@comcast.net

VITAL STATISTICS

Favorite activities: Skiing, reading and writing

Favorite food: Ice cream

Favorite reading: "Hunger Games"

Favorite music: "Although I play classical music, my iPod is full of pop and rock songs."

Bucket list: Travel the world

Animal companions: "Mochee," a two-year-old Bichon