Lisle teen a 'genius' on piano and a math wiz, too
Getting Holden Mui to talk about how he composes classical music -- for which he recently won a national competition -- is no easy feat.
But then again, describing the creative process can be difficult, even for the most loquacious of adults.
Inspiration might strike whenever, says the 13-year-old from Lisle, whether he's in his room alone thinking about music or among people in the middle of doing something. And no, he doesn't have to play the notes to actually compose.
"If it's good, I write it down," he says matter-of-factly. "I like composing because if I don't like the notes in my piece, I can always change them."
Holden's piece, "Aquarium" for violin and piano, must have sounded good to the judges at the Music Teachers National Association's 2015 composition competition. It won the junior division, beating compositions from 71 other talented students nationwide.
The first movement, "Dolphin," has a flowing sort of rhythm inspired by his favorite composer, Maurice Ravel. The second movement, "Piranha," is more upbeat and rhythmic, Holden explains.
"I was surprised I won," he said. "I like the first movement, but I don't like the second movement as much, because the end sounds bad. I wanted to make it better, but there was the deadline."
Chris Goldston, national coordinator for the composition competition, said the judges look for "really well-thought-out compositions that have a variety of styles or a variety of moods in the same piece."
The national winners get cash awards and have their pieces performed at the MTNA national conference, which takes place next month in San Antonio.
"It's quite an honor for them to get to perform their piece on these winners' recitals," Goldston said. "We have often had winners of the competition that go on to become composition teachers, composers, or even later in life become state or division coordinators for the composition competition."
A seventh-grader at Kennedy Junior High School, Holden is in the Project Idea gifted program and has been a straight-A student -- with the exception of a B in social studies this year, which really bothers him, he said. He also plays the viola for the school orchestra, at which he says he's "not that good."
Orchestra director Shawnita M. McClure begs to differ.
"Holden is extraordinarily talented not only as a musician but also as a composer," she said. "I refer to him as a musical genius. I had the opportunity to play one of Holden's compositions for violin and piano, and after performing the piece with him I can say that I have never worked with a student with so much talent and creativity.
"His positive attitude and commitment to the orchestra program has allowed him to be the perfect role model for the orchestra students at Kennedy Junior High," McClure said.
Holden started composing -- pieces that he now calls "terrible" -- when he was about 5. He began studying composition under Matthew Hagle about three years ago at the encouragement of his piano teacher, Kate Nir. Both Hagle and Nir teach at the Music Institute of Chicago.
"It's rare for composers to start so young. Some composers may not have started until they were 15," Hagle said. "It's a more intellectual process."
There's also a difference between making up melodies and taking the time to write them down.
"Some of (Holden's early work) didn't make much sense, but that doesn't matter," Hagle said. "He was bright enough to take that structured approach and use it. The desire is very, very important."
Holden has perfect pitch and, like many kids his age, learned partly by using computer-based music programs, which can help accelerate the process.
His parents bought Holden a toy piano for Christmas when he was about 4 years old, and he took to it immediately, father Edward Mui said. He learned to read music via instructional websites, and within a few months he outgrew the toy piano in favor of a full keyboard, quickly followed by private lessons.
"He said, 'Daddy, it has not enough keys,'" Edward Mui recalls. "He was already reading music himself. Initially he'd have binders and binders (of sheet music) printed out from the Internet."
These days, Holden practices music for an hour or less per day, mostly because he's so into math and spends hours on the Khan Academy instructional website, where he also dabbles in programming.
He'll compete in the Mathcounts state finals March 19 after placing seventh out of more than 250 students in the regional round last month.
"Holden is incredibly motivated to excel," said math teacher Nick Titus. "His innate curiosity drives him to be successful even though this is his first year attempting competition-style mathematics."
Math also influences his music, Holden said, explaining he uses math concepts such as the Thue-Morse binary sequence in his winning composition.
"I put that into the rhythms of who plays the notes, the violin and the piano, in the sequence," he said. "Patterns are cool, but irregularity is good, or else it sounds too periodic."
As for what he wants to do in life -- whether it's going to be math, music or something else -- he doesn't know yet. "With playing I have to practice, but you don't exactly practice writing music. I feel I need to practice more for the piano, but I like more the math stuff," he said.
Holden might be reserved around strangers, but he has a playful side and truly enjoys music, Hagle said.
"There are some students who've got their whole life planned out for them, but not him," he said. "He enjoys learning about this and he enjoys doing it. He also asks great questions, which is nice for a teacher."
Math is his newest love, but music has been in his life for so long it's hard to imagine him without it, said his mother, Victoria Trieu.
"He started composing when he was very young. We don't know how or what inspired him, but he did it," she said. "It's just part of him."
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Holden MuiAge: 13
School: Kennedy Junior High School
Who inspires you? The French composer Maurice Ravel.
What book are you reading? I just finished "Timebound (The Chronos Files)" by Rysa Walker for a school project.
What music are you listening to? Impressionist music from the early decades of the 20th century.
The three words that best describe you? Mathematician. Programmer. Musician.