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posted: 5/1/2014 5:30 AM

Bolingbrook teen finds patterns of success across fields

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  • Video: Meet Standout Timothy Zhou

  • Timothy Zhou, 17, a junior at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, is a National YoungArts Foundation honorable mention winner in music, an accomplished chess player and a fledgling mathematician. Recognizing patterns, he says, is key to succeeding in all three disciplines.

       Timothy Zhou, 17, a junior at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, is a National YoungArts Foundation honorable mention winner in music, an accomplished chess player and a fledgling mathematician. Recognizing patterns, he says, is key to succeeding in all three disciplines.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Timothy Zhou, a junior at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, earned an honorable mention in music from the National YoungArts Foundation. The 17-year-old also excels in chess and mathematics.

       Timothy Zhou, a junior at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, earned an honorable mention in music from the National YoungArts Foundation. The 17-year-old also excels in chess and mathematics.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Timothy Zhou of Bolingbrook is a top chess player and math student at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, but his passion is playing the piano, for which he earned a National YoungArts Foundation honorable mention award. He says the three seemingly diverse disciplines have some things in common.

       Timothy Zhou of Bolingbrook is a top chess player and math student at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, but his passion is playing the piano, for which he earned a National YoungArts Foundation honorable mention award. He says the three seemingly diverse disciplines have some things in common.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Timothy Zhou, 17, a junior at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, is a National YoungArts Foundation honorable mention winner in music, an accomplished chess player and a fledgling mathematician. Recognizing patterns, he says, is key to succeeding in all three disciplines.

       Timothy Zhou, 17, a junior at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, is a National YoungArts Foundation honorable mention winner in music, an accomplished chess player and a fledgling mathematician. Recognizing patterns, he says, is key to succeeding in all three disciplines.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Timothy Zhou of Bolingbrook is a top chess player and math student at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, but his passion is playing the piano, for which he earned a National YoungArts Foundation honorable mention award. He says the three seemingly diverse disciplines have some things in common.

       Timothy Zhou of Bolingbrook is a top chess player and math student at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, but his passion is playing the piano, for which he earned a National YoungArts Foundation honorable mention award. He says the three seemingly diverse disciplines have some things in common.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Timothy Zhou of Bolingbrook is a top chess player and math student at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, but his passion is playing the piano, for which he earned a National YoungArts Foundation honorable mention award. He says the three seemingly diverse disciplines have some things in common.

       Timothy Zhou of Bolingbrook is a top chess player and math student at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, but his passion is playing the piano, for which he earned a National YoungArts Foundation honorable mention award. He says the three seemingly diverse disciplines have some things in common.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

  • Timothy Zhou, 17, a junior at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, is a National YoungArts Foundation honorable mention winner in music, an accomplished chess player and a fledgling mathematician. Recognizing patterns, he says, is key to succeeding in all three disciplines.

       Timothy Zhou, 17, a junior at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, is a National YoungArts Foundation honorable mention winner in music, an accomplished chess player and a fledgling mathematician. Recognizing patterns, he says, is key to succeeding in all three disciplines.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer

 

Timothy Zhou excels at music, math and chess.

While that may seem like an unusual combination, the Bolingbrook teen is quick to explain the three disciplines are much more similar than people may think.

"Music has a really emotional side to it, but the part that people don't pay attention so much to is the logical aspect of it," said Timothy, 17, a junior at the Illinois Math and Science Academy.

"There's a lot of structure in music, a lot of repetition, and that figures in math and chess. Math includes a formal study of patterns, not just computation. A lot of times it's about seeing what kind of things keep happening. I think that's the thread."

Patterns speak to Timothy, and his ability to find and understand them is key to his success in seemingly diverse areas.

"Patterns are essential for creativity, because otherwise you have randomness, and no one thinks randomness is beauty. At least, I don't."

He points out there are many examples of famous people with the same intersecting passions. Albert Einstein was a violinist and chess player. Russian concert pianist Mark Taimanov was a champion chess player probably best known for his 1971 match with Bobby Fischer.

Timothy is an outstanding math student who qualified to take the uber-competitive American Invitational Mathematical Examination. Only about 5 percent of serious math students make it that far.

He has been a top chess player for the last two years on IMSA's team, which finished 11th at this year's state chess competition. Timothy placed 29th out of 139 competitors.

Perhaps most notably, he's an accomplished piano player, earning honorable mention at the 2014 National YoungArts Foundation competition, which featured about 11,000 applicants across the country.

Timothy was among 687 young people from 46 states recognized for their accomplishments in the literary, performing, visual and design arts fields. YoungArts alumni include Oscar-nominated actress Viola Davis and recording artists Nicki Minaj and Josh Groban.

"It's the first national thing I tried out for," Timothy says of what he considers his most outstanding music accomplishment.

Timothy also was a finalist at the Crain-Maling Chicago Symphony Orchestra Youth Auditions in 2012, and he won 2nd place in the Elmhurst Concerto Competition in 2013.

While he excels in chess and math, piano is his passion.

"A lot of playing onstage is stage presence, especially if everybody is so good they all sound pretty much the same. At that point it becomes more important who can draw you in, and their attitude," he said.

"I normally try to concentrate on the music and enjoying sharing my favorite songs with an audience."

Mozart was his favorite composer when he was younger, but now he's more about Chopin.

"Mozart has this regal sense to it, but romantic composers are more down to earth," he said. "My taste develops over time. If you listen to anything too much, you get bored."

Timothy said he discovered the beauty of math in sixth grade, thanks to a particularly good teacher.

"(My teacher's) favorite quote was, 'Patterns are sacred.' He would draw that on the board and he would make the class stand up and bow down to the board," he said.

"I began to see how math and music are related because of the abstract patterns. You start with something really simple and then you develop it into something really beautiful."

Chess also is largely about patterns, he said.

"Grandmasters have seen a wide variety of games, and they are able to boil down games to the simplest elements," he said.

Timothy's ability to detect patterns does not make his thinking predicable, IMSA math professor Steve Condie said. On the contrary, he is extremely creative.

"Students can take a method they've seen before and make it fit a different problem or see how it fits a different problem. They can discern that structure," he said.

"But you don't really see kids come up with their own method of solving something that seems completely new, or very close to it. I've seen that from (Timothy) a few times."

Timothy also stands out because of the breadth of his interests, Condie said.

"It's the incredible range of activities he has, and being super, super talented in all of them," he said.

None of that comes without hard work, says Brian Baxter, director of operations for the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra.

Timothy played with the CYSO's concert orchestra before winning its concerto competition in 2011. That meant he got to perform as a solo pianist with the orchestra the following season.

He was only in the eighth grade at the time, a rarity among the orchestra's mostly high school-aged members, Baxter said. "The reason he's so good at piano is just because he's a very hard worker, and you can tell that when someone practices," he said. "He was always a very hard worker, very dedicated to playing the best that he could."

Timothy developed a knack for music at a young age, said his mother Kaimin Xu.

He loved playing on a toy keyboard his parents gave him at age 1, and around age 4 or 5 was able to replay church music without anyone teaching him the notes, she said.

His parents decided to encourage his talent by buying him an upright piano and later getting him piano lessons at age 7. They eventually upgraded to a concert piano.

Timothy is extremely driven, IMSA chess team coach Don Porzio said. Timothy will be captain next year.

"When he gets into something, he really gets into it. He studies it quite to death," he said.

"He's very good at taking a situation on the chess board he hasn't seen before and figuring out what he might want to do to come up with a winning position out of it."

He is also a good role model for teammates.

"(His teammates) very much love to work with him," Porzio said. "With all his pursuits, he'll occasionally have to miss practice to do something else, and they're always asking, 'When does Timothy get here?' to ask him about some (chess) variation."

Last summer, Timothy devoted a lot of time to working on research at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine related to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease.

He wrote a program that tracks the activity of fly larvae to test the effects of different drug compounds.

"I'm pretty pleased with what I was able to do, but I realized that biology in general wasn't something for me," Timothy said. "Computers I can code, but it's not particularly enjoyable. It's more like writing up a solution."

In college, Timothy wants to keep studying math and music, but said he doesn't have a clue yet what he wants to do professionally.

"I think that's what a math major is for," he said. "It's for people who don't know what they're doing."

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