Spreading Happiness, One Note at a Time
How a 7-year-old made it to Carnegie Hall.
by Bridget LeRoy
WORLD TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
There’s an old joke: A lost tourist stops someone on the streets of New York and asks, “Excuse me, how do you get to Carnegie Hall?” The answer? “Practice!”
Matthew Chang, age 7, and his parents, Wilson Chang and Marin Su Chang, of Bethesda, Maryland, talked to the World Tribune about their practice—both musical and Buddhist—that got Matthew to the stage of Carnegie Hall for a piano solo on May 14. He will perform there again on July 3 and Nov. 6.
Mrs. Chang explained: “When Matthew was 4, his teacher told me that he moved around too much in school. We wanted him to focus, so we signed him up for karate and piano lessons.”
According to Mrs. Chang, the piano teacher was surprised by Matthew’s natural ability. “He learned quickly, and he really enjoys it,” she added. Neither Mrs. nor Mr. Chang have “any musical ability,” she acknowledged, although “Wilson has thousands of classical music CDs, and we listened to them all the time while I was pregnant. But we’re always thinking, How did we acquire the good fortune to have this kid?”
The couple attributes much of that good fortune to their SGI Buddhist practice. “We know that chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo works,” Mr. Chang said. “We’ve seen it change other people’s life condition, and it’s changed us too.” Mrs. and Mr. Chang “chanted abundantly every day for five years” to have a baby before Matthew came along. “He is definitely a fortune baby,” Mrs. Chang said with a laugh.
“Matthew also wants his music to alight the hearts of people around the world, to bring and spread happiness.”
While Matthew chants daily, he also practices on the piano for an hour every day after school.
“This year,” he said, “my piano teacher registered me for a challenging concerto competition, which has three movements. In each movement, I had to compete with all elementary school students. Even though I knew I would be the youngest competitor, I made a determination to win all three movements, since my mom told me I could achieve my goal by chanting.” Matthew also did gongyo with his parents every night for the two weeks prior to the competition, and said he received actual proof when he came in first for all three of the movements. But because of the competition rules, which don’t allow one winner in all three categories, his name was moved to alternate for two of them. “I am still so happy that chanting did work, making the impossible possible, even if it was just for a few hours,” Matthew said.
Winning first place this year in the American Protégé and Golden Era of Romantic Music competitions is what led to the dates in New York. “We didn’t even know much about Carnegie Hall, how prestigious it was,” Mrs. Chang said. “We just wanted Matthew to reach more people, to show that this Buddhist practice works.”
And reach people he did. The family chanted backstage prior to Matthew’s performance in the crowded theater. “There was some laughter when he walked out onstage,” Mrs. Chang said.
“He is so little, and he looks so mischievous, with a glint in his eye. But then when he gets up on the stool and puts his fingers on the piano keyboard, he turns into someone else. He’s able to call up something within himself, his life energy, and everyone in the audience can feel it.”
Following Matthew’s flawless performance, his mother said, there was a moment of shocked silence before the applause began. “Then he hopped off the stool, and became a little boy again,” she said. “He took three bows. They clapped for a long time.”
The accompanist told Mrs. Chang afterward: “Oh my god, this boy is amazing. He was even better than the high school students.” “It just proves that chanting works,” his mother added. “Matthew prayed very hard, and continues to chant. He wants to be No. 1 in the world.”
Since that first performance, Matthew has won an international competition and will be performing in Vienna, Austria, in September. “This practice just keeps expanding our lives,” Mrs. Chang said.
“We really encourage him to chant,” added Matthew’s father. “We know the benefits that come from chanting and study, from bringing our confusion or frustration with our everyday environment to the Gohonzon.” For a long time, Mr. Chang said, Matthew was not a confident performer, in spite of his success. “His confidence goes up and down, like a roller coaster, so we encourage him to chant for the confidence to play well,” said Mr. Chang. “And we try to make gongyo fun—it appeals to his love of memorizing things, like piano concertos. Every night after dinner, the three of us chant and do gongyo, and then go to bed.”
“This years marks the 60th anniversary of the Osaka Campaign,” Mrs. Chang said. “Expressing his determination to build the membership in Osaka,” SGI President Ikeda later wrote: “I was certain that my burning determination— the passionate flame of the human spirit that could make the impossible possible, beyond imagination—would definitely spread and set alight the hearts of many others” (May 13, 2016, World Tribune, p. 3).
“Matthew also wants his music to alight the hearts of people around the world, to bring and spread happiness,” his mother said. “That is our mission.”
And in Matthew’s own words: “Playing the piano makes me feel energetic and happy, like chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.”