Music, versatility key to Algonquin teen's success
"I'm just a random, overachieving kid who happened to do some stuff," is how 17-year-old Kevin Derby describes himself.
That's one way to put it. Another is to say he's the kind of student who excels in so many areas -- earning a perfect 36 on his ACT, making all-state as a saxophone player, swimming competitively -- that one wonders how the Algonquin teen does it all.
And then still have time to help immigrants learn English and randomly research disparate topics, just because.
"Every day I try to learn something new," said Kevin, a senior at Jacobs High School in Algonquin. "You could be reading up on quantum physics or something mundane like 10 different life facts. Always be trying to learn and have a hunger for learning. Just keep at it. Knowledge is power."
Kevin says learning to play the piano and alto sax has been key to his overall development.
"Music is really good for your brain. There is a whole science behind it, how music makes you smart," he said. "Music helps you train your brain in certain ways that you don't normally get going through school. You get more creative. You can try to tackle a problem in different ways. Also the technical skill it takes to play an instrument, especially something like piano that is polyphonic and complex, it really helps with your brain processing speed."
Kevin is proof of that, with a 3.95 GPA on a 4.0 nonweighted scale. His only B came in an AP language class last year.
"Grades are important and everything, but I'm not the type of person to hound over it. It's not a big deal if it's a 3.95 or a 4.0," he said.
Still, he cared enough to retake his ACT after earning a 34 on his first try.
"My writing sub-score was absolutely terrible. I bombed it," he said. "So I practiced."
Practice made perfect, and his 36 placed him in the top one-tenth of 1 percent of the 1.9 million or so students in the 2016 class who took the test, according to data from ACT.
Kevin's success outside the classroom mirrors his achievements in it.
He is a member of the Jacobs' Worldwide Youth in Science and Engineering team, which qualified for the state finals in April. He's captain of the school's Scholastic Bowl and Science Olympiad teams, making state with the latter for three years. He's also on Jacobs' swim team and consistently has placed high in the breaststroke at area meets.
Kevin is a true role model for other students, Jacobs AP physics teacher Phillip Timm said, adding he's won "many, many" medals in science competitions.
"He was very helpful in class in terms of helping other students and engaging through discussion," Timm said.
Jacobs band director Anthony Gnutek said Kevin is among the most gifted students he's taught. Kevin was selected by the Illinois Music Education Association for all-state band last year. He's also the rare breed of musician talented at two instruments, Gnutek said.
"He has a lot of natural talent," he added.
Kevin also takes creative initiative, such as when he composed an arrangement of a Taylor Swift song for a sax quintet that performed at the Jacobs pops concert in February.
"He got the kids to play together and rehearse. He just took the reins and decided to do that -- and it sounded really good, too," Gnutek said.
The piano and saxophone touch him in different ways.
"The sound qualities of the alto sax, and sax in general, are really nice. You can get the forcefulness of a brass instrument without being too overbearing. You still have some of the mellow of a woodwind," he said. "It's a medium I really enjoy."
The piano draws out his more bombastic side, especially during yearly recitals at the Raue Center for the Arts in Crystal Lake.
"I enjoy big, showy pieces like Rachmaninoff preludes," he said. "They work out well for me, because I am athletic. I have the upper body to pull off the pieces."
Kevin was born in China -- where his American father and Chinese mother met -- and lived there until age 5. Now, he volunteers on Sundays as an English teacher's assistant at Xilin NorthWest Chinese School in Hoffman Estates, helping students who are mostly adult immigrants.
"It's cool to see the guys that have immigrated and barely know a lick of English, and after a semester they start learning," he said. "It's not like little kids who can pick up a language. It doesn't come easy."
After graduating this spring, Kevin plans to study biomedical or aerospace engineering in college, with the goal of going to graduate school or launching a startup company.
While it's hard to imagine now given all he's accomplished, Kevin admits he wasn't always as self-motivated.
"In the beginning, especially through middle school and the first year of high school, there was a lot of pushing from my parents," he said. "Then you grow. You mature. You realized there is a point (to studying) and become much more self sufficient."
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Kevin DerbyAge: 17
School: Jacobs High School
Who inspires you? Neil deGrasse Tyson, an American astrophysicist.
What book are you reading? The third book in George R.R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" series that inspired the HBO TV series "Game of Thrones."
What music are you listening to? Piano covers of pop, alternative and some rock songs.
The three words that best describe you? Creative. Motivated. Curious.