R5 Wonderful Wunderkinds

Additional Research by Matthew Klampert and Marisa LaScala

in Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell famously writes that to truly succeed at something, you need to work at it for 10,000 hours. By our estimation, these local teens and pre-teens have already made a huge dent in that figure. Meet 13 local “wunderkinds” who have not only found their life’s passions before they could cast their first vote but have already received some recognition for it.

➜ Nicholas Barasch

 Photo by Thos Robinson/Getty Images for Sony Masterworks

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Age: 12 Town: South Salem Excels in: Acting

CV: Parents might know this John Jay middle-schooler, even if they’ve never seen his face: Nicholas Barasch is the singing voice of Austin on Nickelodeon’s The Backyardigans. Then again, they might have gotten a glimpse of him—from a Broadway audience, no less—when he appeared as Kiddo in Broadway’s most recent production of West Side Story.

How did you get started acting? I’ve been singing my whole life, but I moved to South Salem from the City, and my mom started doing some community theater. We both auditioned for The Music Man and we both got parts—she played my older sister actually. I kept doing community theater and then did Random Farms Kids’ Theater, which is how I found my manager. Through my manager, I got West Side Story on Broadway and Nickelodeon’s The Backyardigans.

What was West Side Story like? It was really fun. I met so many awesome people and I learned so much. And I got to sing ‘Somewhere’ almost every night—six shows a week out of eight.

Did that ever get tiring? Sometimes. Now that I’m done, I sort of miss it.

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➜ Legan Bayombo

Age: 15 Town: Mount Vernon Excels in: Spelling

CV: Bayombo is nothing if not persistent. After competing yearly in the district-wide Scripps Spelling Bee as an eighth grader, he finally brought home the trophy. Winning also meant a trip to DC to compete in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, where he made it to the third round.

What prompted you to enter your first spelling bee? I started in fourth grade when my teacher noticed I was a good speller. She suggested I get more competitive. I did Scripps year after year and lost, but in eighth grade I won.

How did you get to be so good at spelling? Just repetition. You have to know which language the word comes from, and how they write in that language. Certain rules you’ll know—like in Greek they don’t use certain letters. It’s just memorization after that. I usually say the word a few times and have it in my thoughts. Then I’ll try to spell it and keep on doing it over and over.

Is this what you want to do for your career? I want to be an aerospace engineer and work for NASA.

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➜ Eugene Bender

Age: 18 Town: Elmsford Excels in: Classic Violin and Irish Fiddle

CV: By day, Eugene Bender may study classical violin at the Music Conservatory of Westchester, but, by evening, he moonlights as an award-winning Irish fiddler. In 2007, he won the North Atlantic Competition for his Irish music stylings.

Which do you like better—Irish fiddle or classical violin? I’ll always have a great love for Irish music because that’s what I started with. My dad loves traditional Irish music, and he introduced it to me when I was young. He had a few contacts in the music scene, and I started playing with Brian Conway, my first fiddle teacher. I then moved to classical.

What’s the difference between the two in terms of skills? In classical music, everything is learned from a sheet. In Irish, it’s all by ear.

What should people know about Irish music? You know that show Who’s Line Is It Anyway? They always go, “eidey didey didey didey.” There’s a lot more to it than the jigs, the reels, and the River Dance. It’s a very broad style of music, and there’s a lot of interpretation and self-expression.

What’s the hardest thing about playing Irish music? There are lots of huge parties going on with inebriated people while you’re trying to play in the background. It’s all for the music, though.

 

 

➜ Elyse Blueglass, Morgan Blueglass, and Tyler Lipperman

Photo by M. Blueglass

Ages: 16, 16, and 17, respectively Town: Somers, Somers, and Yorktown Excel in: Science

CV: These three budding researchers noticed that, when a family has a child with special needs, often the majority of their focus is on that child—and they wanted to find out how this might impact the siblings of special-needs children. They devised a survey, sent it around—and were surprised to find it caught steam, leading to an overwhelming number of responses. The results of their research, titled “A Nationwide Study of Trends in the Attitude and Views of ‘Typically Developing’ Children That Have a Sibling with ‘Special Needs,’” brought home the top prize at the Westchester Science and Engineering Fair. They then presented their research at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair and received the a third-place award in the team category.

How did you get started doing this science research? Elyse: Our dad is a science research teacher at a neighboring school, Yorktown, so we got into it through him.
Tyler: I actually got cut from honors classes my freshman year. I was a point away from getting in on my grade point average. I figured science research was voluntary and I could decide my success in the program, which was perfect for me. I could join it not by how I scored on my English essay, but on my character and how hard I wanted to work.

What’s been your biggest surprise so far? Elyse: We never expected our project to get this big—our survey went nationwide, and we got more than two hundred responses back. We presented at Westchester Science and Engineering Fair and won, so we got a spot in the International Science and Engineering Fair in San Jose, California, in May coming in third place.
Morgan: It’s really our biggest achievement. It blew us away when we won.

How do you become successful in the field of science research? Tyler: You really have to dedicate time. You’re going to have to give up some Friday and Saturday nights. And you have to have a passion for it. I know it sounds corny, but I think if you’re passionate about your research, it really comes across to the judges and helps you in the long run.

➜ Luke Celenza

Age: 18 Town: Bedford Excels in: Jazz Piano

CV: Luke Celenza has been a jazz pianist for 12 years, studying both privately and as a student at the Manhattan School of Music’s pre-college program. In that time, the number of awards he’s received and ensembles he’s joined has been impressive: He’s won the Jazz Band Classic Director’s Award and the DownBeat Student Music Award, was a participant in the 2009 and 2010 Grammy Jazz Ensemble, and has attended the Berklee School of Music Summer Performance Program, the Stanford Jazz Residency, the Jazz in July Piano Master Class, and the Dave Brubeck Summer Jazz Colony.

How did you get started playing the piano? I started around age four because we had an electric one in the house. My dad played drums, and my brother played guitar, so I had to do something. My parents decided to get me formal lessons when I turned five.

What should people know about jazz? Jazz is a language. Think of each song as if it’s a discussion topic and then listen to what the musicians have to say about it. Listen for the snare drum and the pianist’s left hand to be talking to each other. Listen for the ride cymbal and the bass player to be locked in to each other. Listen for solo development and consider each improvisation as a speech about the topic with some comments from the other players. It’s really cool to listen in on a conversation and it will be evident that the more you do, the more you will find is going on between the musicians.

What’s the most memorable thing that has happened in your jazz career? There are too many great moments. You’ll just have to experience some for yourself. If you can’t wait, I’d say go buy some records and start listening to the pros. I’d start with Cool Struttin’ by Sonny Clark.

âžœ Jeremy Jordan-Jones, aka “Triple J,” in The Band Eclypse

Photo by Charles Clay

Age: 18 Town: Scarsdale Excels in: Hip-hop

CV: The Band Eclypse, an eight-piece ensemble made up of best friends from Scarsdale and Yonkers, has picked up some local steam because of the band’s gigs at places such as the Thirsty Turtle, Don Hill’s in New York City, and Westchester County’s Battle of the Bands. But these guys have their eyes on bigger stages, earning an invitation to play Connecticut’s B.O.M.B. Fest 2010 with Lupe Fiasco, 30 Seconds to Mars, and Of Montreal, and making it to the finals to win a spot at the Bamboozle festival with Paramore and MGMT. No doubt, though, their biggest moment in the spotlight is when two of the band’s members, including Jeremy Jordon-Jones (who we got to speak for the band; pictured third from left in Eclypse photo on page 95), were featured at the famous Apollo Amateur Night—and won.

How would you describe your style? It’s hip-hop influenced by pop-rock.

Tell us about playing Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater. After waiting on line for eight hours, Daniel Lonner (aka L.E.D.) and I auditioned at amateur night, thinking we had no chance of getting it. We auditioned for thirty seconds and were then told we were playing amateur night. We didn’t know how seriously people would take us—two rappers from Scarsdale. At first, everyone was booing, but at the end we got a standing ovation. When we were announced winners, we jumped up and down like schoolgirls. It was amazing.

Who is your idol? I would have to say Notorious B.I.G. as far as rap, but we’re into Sublime and The Roots. A lot of times we’re told we have a Roots or Black-Eyed Peas feel.

Who’s helped you the most? Definitely our parents—the fact they’ve been able to tolerate and fund everything we do.

 

 

➜ Taylor Massa

Age: 14 Town: White Plains Excels in: Ballet

CV: A student at the Best of Westchester-winning Logrea Dance Academy, Taylor Massa has already sidled up to the ballet barre at a number of prestigious dance programs. For the past three summers, she’s been accepted into the American Ballet Theater Summer Intensive, and this year she is attending Ellison Ballet Summer Intensive in NYC (snagging one of only 60 spots). You may have seen her on stage last Christmas, when she performed in the lead role in The Nutcracker at the Westchester County Center.

How did you get started dancing? When I was about three, my mom asked whether I wanted to do karate or ballet, and I chose ballet. I’ve stuck with it from then on.

How much time do you devote per week to practicing? Eighteen hours, excluding performances and auditions.

What’s the strangest, funniest, or most memorable thing that’s happened when you were dancing? Once, there was a blackout, but the music kept playing, so we just had to keep dancing. The lights eventually came back on.

➜ Rachel Resheff

Age: 9 Town: Lower Westchester Excels in: Acting

CV: Nine-year-old Rachel Resheff already has three Broadway roles under her belt: Young Fiona in the original cast of Shrek, Julie Hope/Debbie understudy in Billy Elliot, and Jane Banks in Mary Poppins. Soon, you may be able to catch her in local theaters, in the buzzed-about-at Sundance film Three Backyards.

How did you get started acting? My sister did a show at Random Farms Kids Theater, and I saw her and thought that it looked really cool. So I started doing shows there, and then one time a manager saw me and talked to my mom. I auditioned and signed with them.

Who is your acting role model? Lucille Ball.

Is this what you want to do for your career? Yes. I might want to be a few other things, too. I’d like to be a composer or a singer/actress/dancer. I’d like to be a director/producer because then I can be in charge. If nothing works out, though, I want to be a forensic scientist. We just learned about it in school—it’s really cool.

➜ Rachel Rodgers

Age: 15 Town: South Salem Excels in: Jazz Flute

CV: In six short years as a jazz flutist, Rachel Rodgers has made her mark on the jazz community. She cut a record, which has received airplay on some jazz radio stations. She’s performed at the KSBR Jazz Festival in Los Angeles, the Gibson Guitar Stage in Nashville, Avery Fisher Hall in New York City, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. Not one to rest on her laurels, she also studies classical music and performed a solo for the Westchester Oratorio Society.

What’s been the most exciting thing that’s happened to you so far? My first CD, Summer After Seven, which I made the summer after seventh grade with Ron Carter and his trio. I really wanted to make a CD—and I got to work with one of the greatest bassists of all-time!

How did that come about? My dad, who is in advertising, had done commercials with Ron Carter. He sent him a tape and Carter agreed to do a CD with me. We got together in the City and jammed for a day.

What’s the hardest thing about playing? Once in a while, I’ll sneeze really loudly. That’s really hard as a flutist because you use your mouth. I’ve done that a few times, and it’s pretty embarrassing.

➜ Hanna Salamida

Age: 11 Town: Chappaqua Excels in: Gymnastics

CV: Hanna Salamida switched from ballet to gymnastics and never looked back. She trains at Chappaqua’s World Cup Schools, where she practices for nine hours a week. So far, her efforts have paid off: she’s come in first place in the district all-around competition several times, and she also placed seventh in last year’s statewide competition.

What’s the best—and worst—part about being involved in gymnastics? At the gym, I’ve learned how to be competitive and have fun. It’s really built up my confidence. The worst part would be the injuries.

Who is a your role model in your field? Nastia Liukin, because she won the all-around at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, and that’s my dream.

When you’re not doing gymnastics, what else do you do? I’m usually doing schoolwork because I’m at the gym so much.

➜ Sophia Steger

Age: 11 Town: Peekskill Excels in: Violin/Piano

CV: Not only is Sophia Steger a consummate musician—she is one of the few students allowed to take on a double major at the Manhattan School of Music—but she puts it to good use: she performs at Sky View Rehabilitation & Health Care in Croton-on-Hudson to cheer up the residents there. She’s very decorated as a performer, winning alternate in her first concerto competition, getting awarded the Dorothy Hales Gary Scholarship Concert Performance Award, and becoming concert mistress in the Concert Orchestra, all at the Manhattan School of Music.

Tell us a little bit about your background and schooling. I was born in Manhattan and moved to Peekskill with my parents seven years ago. My parents are both painters. My dad is from Richmond, Virginia, and my mom is from Warsaw, Poland. I am in fifth grade, but I am home-schooled. I study music at the Manhattan School of Music’s pre-college program, and I also go to the Earth School in Yorktown at Hanover Hill Top Farm. I really like the activities involved with nature there. We tapped a red maple tree and made maple syrup.

How much time do you devote per week to practicing? In a good week, I practice about forty hours. I love getting new pieces to learn, and I also prepare each week for orchestra and my chamber music trio.

What’s the secret to your success? My secret to success isn’t very secret. I just love music. I listen to music all the time, and I love to practice.  

If you couldn’t be playing music, what would you do instead? I would be a Shakespeare scholar.  I love Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, his language and his humor.

Not too old himself, Dan Robbins is a sophomore at Cornell University and wishes he had a fraction of the talent these prodigies possess.

 

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