Yihao Zhang is not only an accomplished pianist but also a competitive powerlifter athlete in USAPL Federation.
On March 24, 1993, Yihao Zhang was born in a scholarly family in Shanghai. His father is Enwei Zhang, a famous Shanghai oil painter, and photographer. His great-grandmother dedicated herself to education and she established an academy in the past.
•In 2012, he graduated from the Shanghai Primary and Middle School Affiliate at Shanghai Conservatory of Music
•In 2016, he graduated from the Manhattan School of Music with a Bachelor’s degree in music
•In 2018, he graduated from the Manhattan School of Music with a Master’s degree in music
•Currently a Doctor of Musical Arts student at the University of North Texas College of Music
Awards and honors
•Second prize in the piano competition of the Kawai Cup 2002 in Shanghai at the age of 9
•Second prize in Across Pacific Music Festival & Competition Professional Teenage Group in 2010
•First prize in the American Protégé International Piano and Strings Competition 2022,
and he was invited to perform in the winner’s recital in Carnegie Hall Weill Recital Hall
•Second prize in Muse International Music Competition 2022 in Greece
•First prize in the Golden Classical Music Awards International Competition 2022 in New York
•Gold prize in World Classical Music Awards 2022
•First prize in the 36th International Music Competition "Paris" Grand Prize Virtuoso
•Gold Prize in ECM Classical Music Artists Award
•First Prize and Special Prize Excellent Musicality Prize in World Grand Prix International Music Contest
•Gold Prize and Excellence Technique Award in the Manchester International Music Competition
•First Prize Award with excellence nomination in the International Vivaldi Music Competition
•Gold Prize and Excellence Technique Award in Franz Schubert International Music Competition
•Platinum Prize in Beethoven International Music Competition
•Diamond Prize and Masterful Interpreters Special Award in the Royale Music Competition
•Platinum Prize and Technical Mastery Musical Genius Award in Global Genius Music Competition
•Absolute First Prize in Bach International Music Competition
•Platinum Prize and Best Performer of the Country Special Prize in the 2023 Grand Master Music Competition
•Platinum Prize in Best Classical Musicians Awards
Aside from as a pianist, he is a powerlifting athlete who won：
•3rd place Bronze medal in the 2019 USAPL Powerlifting NY State Championship
•1st place champion in USA Powerlifting Ataraxis Open
•1st place champion in USA Powerlifting Strong Island Open
•3rd place Bronze medal in USAPL Northeast Regionals Championships
1. You mentioned that you are a competitive weightlifter with the USAPL federation - has weightlifting training had any impact on your muscles that might affect your music practice or performance? Conversely, have you found weightlifting training to be beneficial to your music performance? We'd love to hear more about your experience in this regard.
The most common words and thoughts instilled in every child who learns a musical instrument are "to protect your hands". I started muscle training at the age of 17. As much as I love the strength workout, I always do lightweight training with the principle of "protecting my hands" in mind.
At the very beginning period of the muscle training, I did not consider how much the weights will affect my muscles, mainly for the sake of physical health. After graduating from graduate school, I tried the powerlifting training that I had always wanted and found that I had an advantage in powerlifting.
As the weights of my training became heavier and heavier, the correct powerlifting training not only did not cause damage to my hands, but it was also a great help to my piano performance, so I began to study the impact of strength training on piano performance. The dual training of sports and music has improved my ability and allowed me to win some awards in piano and powerlifting competitions. My parents are also gradually relieved, they know that I will arrange my training reasonably and take the right and scientific protection methods.
Strength training can train more muscles parts of the body, and increase the strength and control of the muscles, which allows me to easily control the touching on fingers, timbre, and volume when playing some powerful works, which can make the works more emotionally intense and musical tension for my audiences to feel. Muscle training can increase endurance, which allows me to maintain a good performance from the beginning to the end of a long recital, including a long time of daily piano practice.
Before and after strength training, there will be strong emotional changes between calm and excitement, and the body will also have a contrast between tension and relaxation. This emotional fluctuation and physical feeling can also be applied to music, making music have more levels of expression. During strength training, people need to always maintain a high degree of concentration to ensure correct movements and prevent injuries. When this kind of high concentration is used in piano practice, the efficiency of piano practice can be greatly improved.
2. How do you typically structure your practice sessions? Do you follow a specific routine or have a set timetable?
My piano practice philosophy is to start practicing from my weaknesses and work harder on them so that the weak points can catch up with my strengths as soon as possible. Otherwise, a certain aspect is too prominent or too weak, and the gap is too large, which will lead to the rendering effect on the music is no good. And if you always keep avoiding your weaknesses, it will make them even worse over time.
The routines can be flexible. For piano practice, if one hand is tired, then train another one. It is also applied to fitness training, if a certain part of the muscle is sore or swollen, but other parts are in good condition, then train other parts to allow the sore and swollen part to rest and recover.
Piano and muscle are the same in the way of training, never blindly pursue quantity, quality is far more important than quantity.
3. Could you provide some insights into your daily practice routine? How many hours do you dedicate to piano practice each day? What drives and inspires you to persistently practice and enhance your musical skills?
I don't think it's ever possible to skip some basic training, which includes separate hands practice and slow-speed practice. Although basic exercises seem elementary, often these exercises can achieve twice the result with half the effort.
Normally, my practice time is 3-4 hours a day. If I am in good condition, I can extend the time to 6-8 hours, but this is not happening every day, because if I practice too much, I will get tired both physically and brain, which may affect the quality of the practice, and if you practice for a long time with no stops, the body couldn't get rest and recovery, and it is easy to be overtired and cause arms muscle damage.
If one day your physical function is not in good condition or you are not in the right mood for practicing the piano, and you can’t get into the state at all, then don’t practice, because if you spend a lot of time practicing in a poor state and low efficiency, not only if there is no progress, but it may also regress.
My father is a well-known oil painter and photographer in Shanghai, and I often get artistic inspiration from his paintings. His painting presents different styles, giving people various visual impacts, which makes me want to let the audience have a lot of auditory impacts through music.
What inspired me to study music was a painting called "OLE OLE" created by my father for Beijing's bid to host the 2000 Olympic Games in 1997 and exhibited at the Fourth China Sports Art Exhibition.
What caught my eye was a spinning vinyl record. The cover of the record was the sports event of the Olympic Games, the bullseye in the middle symbolized the goal of winning the championship in the arena, and the surrounding text was the lyrics of the SOCCER ANTHEM "OLE OLE OLE" to symbolize the passion for sports. It seems that after the record is turned, you can see the athletes in the arena sweating passionately, the audience cheering in their seats, and the athletes and audience excitedly singing the Olympic theme song together... Music and sports elements can be displayed through painting, and different styles and elements can be perfectly combined to form richer works. This is the motivation for my unremitting practice——by improving my musical skills, and applying diversity to music so that I can do more expressions.
4. What specifically draws you to their music?
I love history very much, but the sense of historical pictures seen and felt from the text is limited.
Classical music reflects the lives of people in every period, there are varieties of musical styles in different times. Through those music works, I can feel the emotions and thoughts of people in the social environment at that time, including love, war, and religious cultures... Rich imagination accompanied by beautiful melodies, the content of history appears in my mind, and it forms scenes of wonderful pictures, so I am more attracted to classical music
5. Throughout your musical journey, what has been the most challenging aspect you've encountered, and how did you manage to overcome it?
For me, the most challenging thing is piano learning in childhood. As a child, I had no patience and determination, and I was always curious about new things around me, so when I was forced or spent most of my time practicing piano, I felt tired and bored. Many things were unknown, and I couldn't understand the deeper content of the music, so I often felt confused.
As I grew up, my understanding began to increase, I had been learning history and exploring the style of works, so that the works I learned were gradually perfected, and I was even praised during performances... When I discovered the interesting aspects of music works, I naturally overcame these barriers.
6. Are there any particular techniques or strategies you find helpful in mastering difficult passages or conveying emotions through your performances?
Some pieces are technically difficult, such as big jumps, and running fast... For players with small hands, octaves or chords over octaves are hard technical points, even after a lot of practice, it may not necessarily achieve the desired effect. Many people experience fear in the face of difficulties that are especially physically insurmountable.
For periods with large spans, the speed can be appropriately slowed down, and some chords with large spans can also be turned into arpeggios. As for the increased fast-running speed, you need to use the "slow-fast-slow" training method to practice a lot and correctly.
Sometimes pianists want to express an emotion, by changing the speed, strength, key touch method, and playing style... But if you can't express the desired feeling due to limited technical ability, try to switch different emotions, but this needs to maintain the unity and integrity of the music.
Whether it is the modification of technical difficulties or the transformation of musical mood, musicians need to believe in their music, bring their performance into the music, and make it vivid, because some changes are to present better works, it is not to tell someone "This is something I'm afraid of".
7. Lastly, who are your musical role models or influencers, and how have they influenced your approach to music?
My musical role model is my Doctor of Musical Arts mentor——Vladimir Viardo.
The first time I saw Professor Vladimir Viardo was watching The Cliburn 50th Anniversary Gala Red Carpet Interview, and I was impressed by his infectious smile and cheerful personality.
I really love his music, his performances make me feel a lot. He always shows some details that others don’t notice so that the audience can feel the emotional changes at different levels and the progress of the music. His music is very contagious, which makes it easy for the audience to have a sense of the picture and resonate with it. Even if it is a brand-new work that has not been touched before, they can understand the artistic conception expressed in the work through his performance.
When I encounter some works that are difficult to understand and perform, I often have different ideas for piano practice and processing methods inspired by Professor Vladimir Viardo’s performances.
I feel very lucky and fulfilled to be one of Professor Vladimir Viardo's students. His optimism and kindness made me feel relaxed in class, and the comfortable learning environment can stimulate the most real feelings of body and mind so that I can better understand and absorb the knowledge I have learned.
He taught me a lot and significantly improved my understanding of music. He guided me to overcome some technical difficulties that had plagued me for a long time and opened my musical thinking. When I have some periods of delicate and complex things that are not fully understood, he can lead me to understand the connotation of these things, thereby stimulating my innovative thinking and enabling me to illustrate those musical works better.